The ghosts of Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene hover over this bracingly chilly debut, about a couple of contemporary American tourists in a fictional yet uncomfortably familiar Asian island nation.
Arriving on an extended vacation from San Francisco, Conrad and Lucy Shermer are unaware that political stability is at the crumbling point in the archipelago of Tambralinga. The Muslim government is cracking down on practitioners of Buddhism and other native religions, while a high-profile dissident leads protests and creates unrest. The Shermers’ marriage is also crumbling. Conrad, a reserved computer-engineer, suspects his realtor wife of infidelity. In fact the affair has ended, but Lucy’s simmering impatience boils over when her husband loses the travel guide and elaborate notes she’s made for the trip. On a whim, Conrad leaves Lucy at their bungalow to search for a brothel he’s read thrives on one of Tambralinga’s smaller islands. The brothel disappoints, but Conrad finds himself launched into solitary travel and sexual intrigue with a couple of Swedish college girls and a Belgian/French woman, Rosanette, who’s accompanied by her little boy. Lucy in turn has her own adventures; after encountering a Buddhist monk whose “magic” leads her to the missing guidebook, she begins traveling with another single American woman and ends up sleeping with the suave, western educated government minister in charge of the religious crackdown. Ultimately, Lucy meets Rosanette, in mourning for the son who drowned while she was seducing Conrad. Lucy offers the distraught woman comfort, unaware that the man Rosanette describes in romantic detail is her stodgy husband—until he actually appears. Landers’s darkly wry tone teeters on the brink of sounding pseudo-British, but as the petty and major tragedies pile up, readers may be grateful for some emotional distance from these unpleasant yet oddly sympathetic characters.
Ambitious and provocative.