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I don't mind agendas. Politics, local or international, grass roots or partisan, are part of life and issues, causes, political climates can offer fascinating glimpses into the way the world is, or could be. The problem with agendas is when they weaken the story being told. The agenda in ORACLE LAKE is so strong that it hinders the narration and ultimately the purpose of the book.
The Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhism, pacifist, and world leader, has died. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and this belief fuels a search for a new-born child, who is to be the new leader. Three Buddhist monks leave Dharamsala in search of the child. Anyone familiar with global politics knows that China has controlled Tibet and has tried to quell all beliefs and behaviors of the native people. The monks themselves represent the government-in-exile and are risking their lives to return home to find the new Dalai Lama who is going to be a baby born within the past month.
Accompanying these three men is Maggie Walsh, a British camera operator who apparently freelances all over the world. She is, alas, a wonderwoman. She is brave, unhesitating and devoted to her work. Although the author does refer to the elevation of the country and how thin the air is, Maggie, who manages to outrun Chinese police, hiding from every search, never runs out of words, or energy. She never coughs, cuts a finger or gets split ends. She doesn't sleep but she seldom tires.
She essentially forces her way into the company of the monks, after arguing that her footage – the only footage – of police attacking innocent demonstrators (which is smuggled out to the West, somehow) gives her rights. She insists that filming the search for the reincarnated Pasang Rinpoche (to use his Tibetan title) will legitimize the monks' work and well help keep him safe from Chinese plots. The Chinese are determined to stop these monks – it's apparently the most important thing they can do, which I admit, I don't buy.
Maggie is assertive and brave, without a doubt, but she's also arrogant and rude. Why argue about faith with a man who has been raised in a monastery since he was eight? Why harangue him and argue about his lifestyle and beliefs? There are many possible topics for discussion, but Maggie manages to find fault and snipe at these men as she's climbing mountains, being chased by Chinese soldiers and police in trucks, planes and helicopters. She has bullied her way into the very risky trip. Her presence as a Westerner makes it even more dangerous for the monks, but she pays no attention to that.
Paul Adam is wholly and clearly on the side of Tibet. No argument there, but in his desire to show who the good guys and bad guys are, he provides one-dimensional bad guys. The Chinese are completely interchangeable cookie-cutter types, personality-free and quite evil. There's no attempt to describe them as real human beings, nor clearly any desire to do so. They are evil oppressors with all the power and money. This flaw makes the book both flat and simplistic. In order to convince us, Adam writes several pages of torture scenes which I had to completely skip reading.
The good guys are so good, you can't imagine them ever making a mistake or doing anything wrong. Maggie knows just when to make a run for it, can outrun carloads full of soldiers, knows everything about everything from child-rearing to heat-seeking devices to car engines and can diagnose at least two different diseases.. At one point, she even lectures the British consul on political realities and perceptions. Apparently he's unaware of the way the West has ignored the Chinese domination of Tibet. Good thing she stopped by.
ORACLE LAKE suffers from far too much repetition. An event occurs, then it is described later by someone. Then later someone describes it. A message is sent and then we hear the message again as it is read. Every single meal is described, even when every single meal is the same. OK, we get that the yak is fundamental to Tibetan life. We hear about every cup of butter tea and every strip of yak meat. And yet, the exposition about the value of the yak to Tibet comes on page 281. By then, believe me, we don't need it. We know about yaks. In this regard, a small glossary of Tibetan terms would have been useful. Instead Adam offers terms in italics, waiting until way too late in the book to define them.
While we learn a lot about what Maggie thinks, the author switches to one of the monks from time to time, giving us his inner voice. You can't always know what everyone is thinking. The thoughts of the Chinese stooges were predictable: arrogance, disdain, sneering superiority and thus they come off as cartoons. Like evildoers in comic books they want to take over the world and don't question nor need to explain why.
ORACLE LAKE ends up feeling very "perils of Pauline." It's essentially one real long chase and every time (and there are five, six, eight of these instances) that the Chinese bad guys are about to find the good guys, the good guys very narrowly escape. Last-second rescues abound as if it were an action movie.
I wholly admire the Dalai Lama and chose to read ORACLE LAKE to travel to a land I don't know, to learn more about the politics and the religion of the region, and that was most interesting. I didn't always find the narrative riveting but I did read all the bits and pieces that told me about Tibet, about religion, the countryside, people and beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism, which are the strengths of this novel. I wish all that had been contained in a better, shorter book.
Reviewed by Andi Shechter, August 2007
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