Yesterday I was sitting on my back porch thinking that there is no greater solitary pleasure than reading. [you, with your minds in the gutter. stop it.] A few seconds later I felt guilty and elitist for thinking that, remembering that others may find just as much pleasure in their garden, on the links, or playing Diablo. In the end, I decided that it was that I was reading a book that had not only the power to compel one's attention to the story, but the ability to take the reader somewhere else.
The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison is a detective novel. It's also a look inside the gulag, a religious education, a cultural history, and a political cry of outrage. Set in Tibet, at a prison camp for political, religious and cultural criminals the Chinese government has put to work building roads, it follows the path of Shan, a former government investigator whose commitment to the truth was more important than his commitment to the party. Shan has been sent to remote Tibet, where he is imprisoned with the religious and cultural criminals, that is, those monks and faithful who refuse to give up their traditions in the campaign to eliminate the Four Olds (ideas, culture, customs and habits). Although he is a prisoner, and a Han Chinese in the middle of Tibet, Shan is removed from his hut to investigate the murder of a party official. Webs of deceit, corruption, and misunderstanding shroud the truth that Shan is trying to uncover, on a timeline to prevent a hermit/monk from being executed. The surface conflicts hide much deeper secrets, and the past itself becomes an actor in the story.
The best thing about this book, to me, was not the plot (and don't get me wrong, the plot was gripping, and the book won an Edgar Award) but the crafting of the entire novel. Few books are subtle enough to truly suspend your existence in your world and lift you into theirs, and few novels with a political axe to grind can avoid beating you in the head with their message. This book is one that can. Rather than sitting on the porch on a ninety degree summer evening, I was in the chilling mists of Tibet. Suddenly I was starving for dumplings, like the characters (although not being in the gulag all I had to do was place a call to The Great Wall, $3.75 for a half dozen, steamed). I felt a bite and smacked a stinging ant, and felt an instant - albeit an instant's - remorse after reading about the mantras said over sandals that they would not be the instruments of destruction for any insect creatures.
There are sequels, and I've just begun one that does not grip me in the same way, but it's a bit early to deliver a final judgment. The Skull Mantra however, is definitely worth your time.Posted by binky at July 13, 2005 03:41 PM | TrackBack | Posted to Books