Lawrence Osborne is being compared with the greats – Evelyn Waugh, Paul Bowles, Graham Greene. His most recent novel, Hunters in the Dark (from Kindle, for less than half the print price) , came out recently and is set in Cambodia. The basic meme is Westerns out of their depth in cultures they don’t begin to understand, with mythic overtones.
A schoolteacher in the tiny Sussex village of Elmer, Robert [the central character] knows that his provincial English life is a cul-de-sac. The anomie that afflicts him is really despair at the pettiness and claustrophobia of England, at “a way of life that justified itself as being the pinnacle of freedom, but [which] had not come up with an alternative reason for existing once the freedom had been sucked out of it”. He leaves for Thailand, slowly settling into the decision not to return to that hated old life. The novel opens with Robert crossing over the border to Cambodia and gambling with the last of his savings to win $2,000. This stroke of luck sets into motion the machinery of a plot that comes to resemble a Newton’s cradle, one sphere colliding with another and transferring its energy and momentum to it, and so on, in a long, complex series.
If you want to read about it on the Sunday Times you’ll have to subscribe, but they do give a little author bio for free:
IT’S TAKEN Lawrence Osborne a long time to find his bearings as a novelist. A compulsive wanderer – born in Britain, he has lived in Paris, New York, Mexico, Morocco and Istanbul and is currently located in Bangkok; out-of-the-way travelling is a speciality – he has been equally wide-ranging as a writer. After his first novel, Ania Malina (1986), which criss-crossed ravaged Europe after the Second World War, he abandoned fiction for 26 years, publishing books on subjects as diverse as off-beat aspects of Paris, a journey into Papua New Guinea, autism, wine connoisseurship and perverse attitudes to sex.
The bumbling Robert has little purchase in this world, where western culture is referenced only in terms of past glories. He thinks he has some insight into the country and its people; Osborne — who said in a Guardian interview last year that the most a writer confronted with an alien culture can do is to “make something out of his incomprehension”— knows that he doesn’t.
Even so, it is Osborne’s probing of the Cambodian psyche that gives Hunters in the Dark depth and substance. If this dark, teasing, elegantly written book has a flaw, it is that its author’s fascination with his characters’ belief in the “fantastical inevitability” of events results in implausibly tight plotting, a too neat tying-up of loose ends. But then life is often larger than literature.
Grappling with manifold questions about identity and the tragic futility of material aspirations in a ruthless, brittle world, this novel draws you into a sun-struck realm where the survival of the fittest is more predicated on chance and where violence is a sudden, opportunistic enterprise. It had me thinking long and hard about how the traits that allegedly define you can be jettisoned easily when you are lost within yourself – and how, simultaneously, there is a bleak freedom in discarding the conundrum with which we all struggle: our tenuous identity.
For myself I’ll just say that Osborne is a stylist – a pleasure to read his prose.