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28 May 2015

An innocent abroad: Hunters in the Dark is a shady portrait of travel

Lawrence Osborne's new book, set in Cambodia, grapples with manifold questions about identity.

By Douglas Kennedy

Hunters in the Dark
Lawrence Osborne
Hogarth, 352pp, £12.99

Where would Anglo-American literature be without the personage of the innocent abroad? Thanks to Henry James, we have such memorable unfortunates as Isabel Archer and Daisy Miller. Patricia Highsmith gave us portraits of naive, often malignant, fellow compatriots in foreign places, landing themselves in culs-de-sac of their own making. Evelyn Waugh’s hapless hero in A Handful of Dust takes leave from cuckoldry back in Blighty and ends up imprisoned in the vastness of the Brazilian jungle. Then there’s Graham Greene’s dangerously jejune “quiet American”, who, while mouthing platitudes about “the Third Force”, stumbles towards his messy demise.

Though tonally and thematically disparate, if there is one commonality to be found in the innocent abroad novel, it is the need for the central characters to flee the traumas or disaffections of their past and make their way in a world in which the rules of the game are not played according to those of that shaky construct called “home”. And when those in question impose themselves on a society that is more fragile than their own, there is an inevitable descent into the proverbial lower depths.

Lawrence Osborne’s very fine new novel, Hunters in the Dark, plays sneaky, canny games with the innocent abroad theme. Some have cited Greene as an imposing presence in his excellent work to date but this new tale – set in the sinister sweatbox of modern Cambodia – eschews geopolit­ical concerns (though the spectre of the Khmer Rouge period and the lasting guilt of several characters who were complicit in that reign of genocide haunt this book). Its identity-­exchange intrigues (his 30-year-old schoolteacher decides to assume another persona while travelling in south-east Asia) might call to mind Highsmith’s Ripley novels but Osborne goes his own way, shunning suspense in favour of a stumbling-into-the-shadows fatalism.

Indeed, the music of chance is a crucial construct in Osborne’s novel, as is that notion of running away from the desperation of the quotidian. Robert Grieve has few grievances with his native England. Nor does he have a family in which dysfunction runs quiet and deep. Rather, his most profound disappointment is with the haplessness of his life, which has led him to end up, as he enters his fourth decade, residing in a damp rural cottage, instructing diffident students in East Sussex and wondering why he has painted himself into such a banal corner.

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Travel proves to be the escape hatch and a peregrination through Cambodia turns into a game of existential roulette when he first manages to win big at a backwater casino and then makes the acquaintance of a quasi-charming, thoroughly louche American named Simon. The scion of a well-heeled family, he is a classic preppy sociopath – a Yale dropout who, unbeknownst to Robert, has an attachment to heroin and is very much someone for whom trouble is his business.

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Before you can say, “Don’t raise a glass with that man,” Robert wakes up to find that his winnings and his passport have been lifted. Instead of alerting the authorities or reporting his stolen identity documents to the British embassy in Phnom Penh, however, he arrives in the Cambodian capital intriguingly relaxed about his impecunious statelessness. A $100 bill in his pocket allows him to find lodgings and a local phone. He decides to set up shop as a freelance teacher of English – but under the name of the American, Simon.

Hey, presto – a client arrives in the form of the exceedingly fetching daughter of a gourmand local doctor (who has many shadows from the Khmer Rouge past). Sophal is Paris-educated and sexually easy. Although both she and her father sense that Robert/Simon may not be exactly kosher, Sophal begins an affair with him. None of them realise that the chicanery of the actual Simon is finally catching up with him and a bent Khmer cop is now on the hunt for the actual Robert Grieve.

Though this thumbnail sketch of the plot may hint at Hitchcockian twists and turns, this is a novel in which atmosphere and shadiness as a character trait count more than narrative propulsion. As such, those picking it up in search of an edgy thriller may be disappointed. Likewise, Osborne’s needs to overdecorate conversational interchanges (Robert’s initial meal with the Cambodian doctor is one of several scenes that simply needs pruning of its dialogue) and his tendency to overegg the descriptions of food and drink run counter to the novel’s splendidly skewed ambiance.

These small annoyances aside, Hunters in the Dark is an excellent addition to the literature of personal displacement. 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.

Douglas Kennedy’s twelfth novel, “The Heat of Betrayal”, is newly published by Hutchinson