Reviewed by Harriet
How could Lionel Davidson ever have been forgotten? I’d certainly never heard of him before I encountered the brilliant Kolymsky Heights (1994), which I reviewed in Shiny issue 5. Thankfully Faber is now reprinting all his superb adventure thrillers, the most recent being The Rose of Tibet, first published in 1962. And what a cracking novel this turned out to be. It’s basically an adventure story, not a genre I’m generally drawn to, but in the hands of Davidson it’s a 369 page, usually agonising, account of human endurance pushed to (even beyond) its limits, interspersed with a heart-rending love story and more than a dash of mystifying mysticism and some fascinating facts about Tibet and the Chinese invasion.
He turned out bleakly. It was four o’clock in the morning. The wind sucked and moaned like a vacuum cleaner at the mouth of the cave. The small lamp was lit and the boy had the spirit stove going. Houston was shrivelled in the sudden deathly cold, and he pulled on his boots and his quilted jacket, stumbling about in the dim light of the cave. He rinsed his mouth out with snow and rolled up his bedding and sat on it while he drank his tea and tsampa.
Charles Houston is the most unlikely hero of an adventure story. He’s a very ordinary sort of chap, an art teacher at a girls’ school in London, with a couple of part-time girlfriends, about whom he is not terribly enthusiastic. He has a younger brother, Hugh, who he more or less brought up, and to whom he is completely devoted. So when he hears that Hugh, who has travelled to Tibet with a film crew, has gone missing, and is thought to be trapped or imprisoned in a remote monastery, he decides to go and rescue him. But Tibet does not welcome foreign visitors, and he’s unable to get an official permit to travel there. Undeterred, he hires a young Sherpa boy, Ringling, who promises to guide him there over the mountains, despite his reservations about Houston’s fitness for the journey (‘I don’t know if you could manage it, sahib’). The map is unreliable, the journey is horrendous, and Houston is lucky to get there alive – indeed, he nearly dies of altitude sickness, never mind the extreme cold.
But get there he does, and finds his way to the Yamdring monastery, where he is immediately imprisoned and unable to find any reliable news of Hugh. However, his fortunes change radically when he manages to meet the mysterious abbess of the monastery, who is never seen in public without her hideously painted mask and veil. He’s been dreading the encounter, imaging a revolting, shrivelled and demonic hag, but on the contrary, he finds a most beautiful young Chinese girl, Mei-Hua, who, as the ‘eighteenth body’, has been chosen by the traditional Tibetan method of divination. She is, indeed, the Rose of Tibet, and soon Houston is desperately in love with her. She is also the guardian of a stupendous treasure; sack after sack of emeralds, worth many many millions. But this is the 1950s, and the Chinese government has started its takeover of Tibet. They will certainly annex the emeralds, so Houston promises to help Mei-Hua escape, bringing the treasure with her. And if the outward journey was terrible, the return journey is even worse, as the whole escape route is thickly studded with Chinese soldiers who are on the lookout for the escaping party and the immense riches they are known to be carrying with them. The cold, the privation, the starvation, almost finish our brave heroes, not to mention the shocking events they are forced to witness from their secret hideout. At one point the Chinese army manage to capture Mei-Hua’s loyal, innocent attendant, Little Daughter: ‘The woman was raped four times more after lunch, and twice towards dark by the wireless operator, who had been missing his share’. Eventually, left alone and desperately missing Mei-Hua, Houston is attacked by a bear, in an episode that is excruciatingly painful to read.
But it’s not all pain and agony, though there is a great deal of that. At the heart of the story is Tibet itself, with all its strange ceremonies, beliefs and superstitions. Houston is understandably sceptical about it all at first, but his association with Mei-Hua opens room for doubt – maybe there is some truth in the prophecies and divinations, though he’s never fully convinced. The girl herself is a wonderful creation, in many ways wholly human but with more than a touch of the mysticism that has been imbued in her since she was found and declared to be the next abbess when she was a small child. We never learn exactly what happens to her when she is finally parted from Houston, but the last chapters provide an extremely disturbing and undoubtedly wholly accurate picture of Tibet in general and the monastery in particular once it falls into the hands of the Chinese.
Houston’s story ends mysteriously too, something which is partly made possible by the fact that The Rose of Tibet has a rather curious structure – a framing device in which a character called Lionel Davidson, a publisher’s editor, is handed four notebooks containing Houston’s story and has to make a decision whether or not to publish it. This is the least satisfactory part of the novel, and I wonder why Davidson included it. But don’t let that put you off. In addition to the nail-biting adventures, there are numerous wonderful characters and much brilliantly conceived local colour and descriptions. It’s unlikely that Davidson ever visited Tibet, but little seems to be known about him, so maybe he did. In any case, he had the most amazingly fertile imagination, and I honestly can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and would love to visit Tibet, though not in the circumstances described in this novel.
Lionel Davidson, The Rose of Tibet (Faber, 2016). 978-0571326822, 384pp., paperback original.
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