This is my review of Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne.
An English teacher in his late twenties, Robert escapes every summer from rural Sussex, which some people might consider a pleasant “prison”, to drift ever further afield. Having found Iceland and Greece “remarkably similar” – which suggests a certain ignorance or lack of observation on his part, Robert finds himself in Cambodia, having crossed the border from Thailand. It is unclear what he is escaping from, and what he hopes to find. “His rage was not obvious to himself. What was it directed against?” Drifting between places with no clear focus of interest, he comes across a Buddhist temple in a nondescript town. “It was a place with its own solitude and austerity and he liked it”. But only the previous evening he was escaping boredom in a casino. Eventually, he slides into involvement with some shady characters. Will this destroy him, or shake him into a more purposeful life?
The front cover likens the author Lawrence Osborne to Graham Greene. He has led a nomadic life in countries including Thailand, which suggests that he both understands wanderlust, and has a first-hand knowledge of Cambodia. Although it sounded like the type of novel I would enjoy, it failed to engage me. There was nothing to compensate for the fact that the plot is too slow to get off the blocks. The prose seemed wooden, with irritating little glitches (How could he see the rolling green hills of Cambodia in the dark, or fill his pockets with notes worth in total only 100 US dollars? What’s an “awkward” shirt?). I found the characters two-dimensional, dialogues banal, a lack of humour, no perceptive insights or startling imagery.
I agree with reviewers who have commented on the descriptions which read like extracts from guide books, on the tendency to tell us what to think about Robert, rather than reveal his character traits for us to mull over, and the abrupt changes in “point of view” later in the novel. I would also have liked a glossary of Cambodian terms to save the distraction of having to stop reading to look them up – or remain frustrated with a partial understanding.
Yet both professional and amateur reviews are on balance positive, so perhaps the chance reading of some exceptionally well-written books recently has made me set the bar too high.