Jen Craig reviews The Darkest Little Room by Patrick Holland
The Darkest Little Room
By Patrick Holland
Transit Lounge Publishing, 2012
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.