Jen Craig reviews The Darkest Little Room by Patrick Holland

The Dark­est Lit­tle Room

 By Patrick Holland

 Tran­sit Lounge Pub­lish­ing, 2012

 ISBN: 978-1-921924-24-8

 Reviewed by JEN CRAIG



Patrick Holland’s sec­ond novel The Dark­est Lit­tle Room is a pur­suit, as its title sug­gests, of ter­mi­nal, secre­tive spaces. Joseph, or Joe, is a 33-year-old Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist liv­ing in Saigon. On the side he employs Minh Quy, an ex police­man, at fif­teen per­cent of his own wage to help him col­lect com­pro­mis­ing evi­dence on promi­nent Viet­namese polit­i­cal and busi­ness lead­ers. He also employs a young boy that he res­cued from home­less­ness and now calls, appro­pri­ately, Peter Pan, to keep a look out for a beau­ti­ful girl with unusual hazel-coloured eyes that Joe had once met and fallen in love with in the far north of Viet­nam. When a Ger­man busi­ness­man, Hönicke, seeks Joseph out with a story about his encounter with a flogged and bleed­ing young woman, what seems a rou­tine pur­suit of jour­nal­ist copy turns into an anx­ious and very per­sonal quest.

The Dark­est Lit­tle Room is replete with sen­si­tively drawn imagery. Par­tic­u­larly res­o­nant are the descrip­tions of the mar­ginal places in Saigon: alleys, bridges; the rat-infested edges of the city. There is humour too, some won­der­ful exchanges, such as this one between Quy and Joe:

‘How well do you like being alive?’
‘I have noth­ing to com­pare it to.’ (48)

Early on in the novel, the nar­ra­tor, Joe, takes plea­sure in observ­ing that ‘[a] woman was com­mit­ting karaoke in a room down the alley.’ (20) Despite this per­haps too cute remark, there is lit­tle of the clam­our of minor com­merce or pop­u­lar music in The Dark­est Lit­tle Room. We learn about the haunts and play­ers of Viet­namese jazz. Joe him­self lis­tens to Arvo Pärt’s Lamen­tate as he resigns him­self to his beloved’s heroin habit, and begins to won­der whether it wasn’t he who had abused and shack­led her (107); his wealthy friend Zhuan Li lis­tens to Górecki’s Mis­ere as he pre­pares him­self for an inevitable and vio­lent death. (246) Such musi­cal ref­er­ences con­tribute to the charged, muted colours of the novel, as well as its long aching tra­jec­tory. They also stir, some­what, the dif­fi­cul­ties at its centre.

Redemp­tion is a key motif in the nar­ra­tives of both Joseph and Zhuan. Zhuan, we learn, has been dri­ven by his mem­o­ries of stand­ing help­less as his father beat his mother when Zhuan was a child – or as he puts it, when ‘[he] stood by and did noth­ing’. (240) By pro­tect­ing and lov­ing Thuy he seeks to make good what he had sup­pos­edly failed to do as a young boy. For Joseph, the notion of redemp­tion seems to be con­nected to his deci­sion not to give money in advance to the mother and uncle of the girl he had fallen in love with – an omis­sion which he later links to their vul­ner­a­bil­ity to the sex slave traders who came around scout­ing after a flood. In an attempt, it seems, to atone for this scru­ple and its appar­ent con­se­quences, Joe pur­sues his beloved’s kid­nap­pers north into Vietnam’s heart of dark­ness where the ‘evil’ under­ly­ing this trade can­not be not traced, as he had expected, to one or two cor­rupt indi­vid­u­als, but flour­ishes every­where and nowhere; every­one in this bor­der ter­ri­tory is com­plicit; no one is ulti­mately at fault.

The nar­ra­tor might appear to be harsh on him­self. He reg­u­larly reports the way Quy and Zhuan describe him as an igno­rant fool. His motives for his side­line work with Quy are both venal and triv­ial, although he is allowed a moment of sen­ti­men­tal decency when con­fronted with the love of an arms man­u­fac­turer for a politician’s wife near the begin­ning of the book. Our last sense of the nar­ra­tor, how­ever, for all this appar­ent weak­ness and the very brief moment of moral scru­ple while lis­ten­ing to Pärt, is Zhuan’s descrip­tion of him as the ‘only decent for­eigner [he’s] ever met’. (237) Joe is a sen­ti­men­tal fool, but a decent fool, the nar­ra­tive implies. He is a man in love. Nev­er­the­less, the story even­tu­ally makes clear that it is not the actual indi­vid­ual iden­tity of the beloved that is most impor­tant, but her role as an abused, vul­ner­a­ble, bleed­ing, world­less and also seem­ingly phys­i­cally rare indi­vid­ual young woman. The nar­ra­tor is aware of this pecu­liar and trou­bling aspect of his attrac­tion to her, but some­how his roman­tic moral quest to get to the node of the slave trad­ing busi­ness and, of course, to res­cue his girl, takes all of his focus – to the very last page. There is no other per­spec­tive. The final image of the book, the dream, is per­haps the most dis­con­cert­ing of the entire novel as it sug­gests that in sup­pos­edly access­ing his heart of dark­ness, his inner­most obscure and claus­tro­pho­bic space, the nar­ra­tor – this every­man with his flawed but sen­ti­men­tal aims – might so eas­ily be able to cut the bonds and break the chains that hold the wounded and vul­ner­a­ble to their fate – and so by exten­sion his own trou­bling attrac­tion to the erot­i­cally dam­aged. I sus­pect this final image has only been added to give hope to what oth­er­wise might have seemed a scour­ing vision. How many fine nar­ra­tives have been marred by that one hastily formed ges­ture that might only have been included to assure some carp­ing reader that all is not bleak in this world? Patrick Hol­land, of course, is not at all unique in suc­cumb­ing to such a reader.

The nar­ra­tive seems fully aware of its own poten­tial pit­falls. Early on in the novel, Joe dis­misses the kinds of books that are ‘writ­ten by middle-class men and women who make safe dreams about poverty from a far far dis­tance’. (23) Later he tells Zhuan about the way his read­ing public:

only ever get those wist­ful cri de coeur sto­ries cor­re­spon­dents write, about how pretty the girls are and how sad it all is, so the read­ers can click their tongues and shake their heads at break­fast and the women go away and donate a few dol­lars to a Chris­t­ian char­ity and the men secretly won­der how they might jus­tify a busi­ness trip. I want to write some­thing that shakes the seats of pow­er­ful men. (86)

Cer­tainly The Dark­est Lit­tle Room is not a story that is told from ‘far far away’. The nar­ra­tor uses an inti­mate, knowl­edge­able tone with the reader. He tells us all we might need to know, from how best to get rid of an unwanted acquain­tance and how use­ful it can be to appear drunk, to the wide­spread prob­lem of car­jack­ings in Viet­nam. He also works as our inter­preter and, unlike one who nego­ti­ates off-stage, allows the Viet­namese lan­guage to pat­tern his pages. And yet, we may ask, is there really any sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence between this book that we are read­ing and one of those ‘wist­ful cri de coeur sto­ries’? While there is an abun­dance of seem­ingly gritty detail and cold-eyed rev­e­la­tions about crime and dirt and des­per­ate want, the nar­ra­tive allows Zhuan and Joe to believe in their emo­tive attempts at redemp­tion to the very last. It is for this rea­son that I find it hard to believe that a cer­tain kind of reader might not, soon after fin­ish­ing the final page, start look­ing up the cost of flights to Saigon, to this wounded dark­ness whose allure the small clear-water eddy­ing around the prob­lems of igno­rance and sen­ti­men­tal­ity some­how fail to dispel.

My only other reser­va­tions about the book are com­pletely minor. The first is pure account­ing. While there is a moment in the jour­ney to the north when Joe wor­ries that he will run out of money and Quy decides to return home, the reader con­tin­ues to count the spec­i­fied amounts that Joe hands out to nearly every­one he meets as he pur­sues his beloved beyond the bor­der into China. It seems to have been sev­eral weeks since Joe has done a paid piece of jour­nal­ism and there is no evi­dence in the novel that his and Quy’s plan to bribe offi­cials – ‘this other way we made money’ – has ever been set into motion, despite the cer­tainty of that verb ‘made’. (9) The sec­ond relates to the way Joe’s slashed chest and busted ribs cease to trou­ble him after Thuy is kid­napped; François can­not be that much of a mir­a­cle healer. There are, too, sadly, numer­ous proof­ing errors: mostly omis­sions of punc­tu­a­tion, although on one page an entire sen­tence is repeated.

Despite these caveats, on the whole The Dark­est Lit­tle Room is a well-constructed piece of fic­tion. The plot is expertly han­dled and the prose is spare and sen­si­tively worked. As a thriller, too, it is an entirely suc­cess­ful book. If the murky strands of mas­cu­line desire had been exam­ined with the same rigour as the morally con­fused exi­gen­cies of poverty, or at least not so sug­ges­tively sev­ered, The Dark­est Lit­tle Room would have been a very pow­er­ful book indeed.