I must be very careful not to reveal any spoilers, so I’ll say not much more than the blurb at Transit Lounge:
Patrick’s Holland’s haunting new novel arises from his experiences in Indochina. An atmospheric literary thriller, it tells the story of a foreign journalist living in Saigon who, shortly after reporting on a murdered girl washed up in Saigon River, is approached by a foreigner describing a brothel known as ‘the darkest little room in Saigon’. The mysterious man shows him a photograph of a beautiful woman covered in wounds and the journalist investigates, not only out of suspicion that women are being maltreated, but also in the hope of finding someone from his past.
The blurb also tells us that Matthew Condon (author of one of my favourite books, The Trout Opera) likens it to Graham Greene:
Thriller, love story, a journey of redemption … this is both a stunning page-turner and an investigation into the dim caverns of the human heart and soul that bears comparison to Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad. Holland’s writing is spare, gripping, and unexpectedly flares like the burning of Vietnamese paper money, as the book describes, for the ghosts of the unloved dead. Here is humour, menace and beauty effortlessly combined in a novel of genuine power. Holland is, quite simply, one of the best prose stylists working in Australia today.
I thought so too, and it’s not just because like The Quiet American Patrick Holland’s novel is set in a corrupt and menacing Vietnam. There is a similar preoccupation with The Innocent Abroad blundering into situations he doesn’t understand, and the writing is as compelling as anything Greene wrote. Like The Quiet American, The Darkest Little Room would make the most marvellous film. (Preferably starring Hugh Jackman).
‘I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused,’ famously says the British journalist Fowler about Alden Pyle, who, the ‘Quiet American’ of Green’s novel, ‘was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance’. Perhaps the same might be said of Joseph, the narrator of The Darkest Little Room, for although he speaks Vietnamese fluently, he’s forever being told that he doesn’t understand the country, and I am not about to tell you whether he survives the trouble he causes. This is not the Vietnam I visited as a tourist: Patrick Holland’s Saigon is a seedy place of sleazy bars, forced prostitution and worse. The border with China is a kind of badlands, and the weather is as malevolent as the gangsters.
Joe has been in Vietnam a good while, and so he knows its corrupt underbelly as well as any expat journalist with a sideline in blackmail might. That makes him susceptible to fantasies of innocent love, and a quest for redemption. Having enlisted the services of Peter Pan, a street child he’s befriended, he’s been searching for a girl he once knew:
[She] had eyes the colour I had seen in the people of the central mountains, and when we reached her house she leant against a wall and sang a song from her home that was like a song from another world. (p. 37)
But despite the claims Joe might have on his loyalty, Peter Pan can’t be trusted because his survival strategy is to please, and he has found countless girls resembling the one in Joe’s photo.
I gathered Peter Pan had told her I was French. Or rather, she had an ideal foreign man who might be romantically watching her from afar who was also a Frenchman. I smiled, imagining Peter Pan listening to the girl’s description of the man she hoped for and nodding yes to every item on the list to please her, as he did for me. (p. 37)
Which of his other friends can be trusted? Joe’s fellow-blackmailer and private investigator Minh Quy, or the Chinese pseudo art-dealer Zhuan with contacts in strange places? Can the reader trust Joe himself when we see where the trajectory of his world-weary cynicism and his vulnerability to love leads him? He can still be shocked by acquiescence to evil, but like any of Graham Greene’s characters, he has a moral decline of his own to confront.
‘The darkest little room in the world is the human heart,’ [he is told], ‘Even yours, perhaps, has black secrets that you would never let into the light.’
This is a wonderful book, destined for the shortlists.
Author: Patrick Holland
Title: The Darkest Little Room
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge
Availability: Direct from Transit Lounge