Review | Wednesday 15 August 2012
Following his simply brilliant collection of essays, Riding the Trains in Japan, Patrick Holland has returned to much grittier fictive grounds in his latest novel, The Darkest Little Room. Set among the black-lit rivers and filthy, sparkling streets of Saigon, this slow-burning thriller is also something of a tribute to the bygone era of correspondent noir.
Joseph, a disillusioned foreign journalist, makes a living reporting on the city’s more gruesome crimes, occasionally dabbling in his own ventures of blackmail and extortion.
One night, he finds the body of a girl washed up by the river with strange, brutal marks on her skin, a discovery that eventually leads him to ‘the darkest little room’ in Saigon – a place where it is rumoured stolen girls are subjected to unspeakable desires. But Joseph’s own past collides violently with his investigation at the infamous Club 49 when he encounters Thuy, a woman he believes to be the girl he once loved and lost, yet someone whom he can never be quite sure of as well.
Holland places this novel within the tradition of Graham Greene, Conrad, Hemingway and co. and indeed it is easy to see why. There is a directness and spareness to the prose that beautifully balances out the action and the more traditional elements of the plot, and the slow, meditative tension easily calls to mind the dark romance of Greene’s The Quiet American.
Yet apart from pure mystery, it seems to me that this is a novel very much about what it means to be enamoured with a place you can never truly understand, to be a stranger in a city where you feel yourself to be most bound. As Joseph reflects, ‘I thought how the night was beautiful and cool on the back of a motorbike at speed through the radiant locales of inner Saigon and I thought about how awful and strange this place was and how I did not ever want to leave.’
Jessica Au is the editor of the Readings Monthly and an occasional bookseller down at Readings St Kilda. Her first novel, Cargo was published in 2011.