The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian ends the winning streak

The Red Lotus Chris Bohjalian review


Skip, read any of the other excellent books Chris Bohjalian wrote before this.

I like thrillers because they are written for the curious, the nosy, the ones that cannot let things go. A novel seduces, it doesn't have to thrust you into its story. It needs a good narrative, gorgeous prose, great structure, maybe the unveiling of the human truth. I love novels that let you linger, but I'm not too fond of thrillers where the pages don't turn. Long story short, I wouldn't say I like writing bad reviews — Especially when you enjoyed a writer's previous work. Midwives, the Flight attendant, and the Double Bind are fantastic. But Chris Bohjalian's the Red Lotus had several elements that could make compelling magazine articles, but together didn't work.
The Red Lotus is well researched; it had an appealing protagonist and a flowing style. But it lacked in tension and an engaging premise. It is difficult to write about a pandemic, about infectious diseases, it's a scary subject, one that most people have an aversion to. That's why we have zombie stories, where the pandemic has gone in extremis, and we can distance ourselves, while still being grossed out. I would have preferred zombies to a story about rats, the plague, and mercenaries trying to sell biological weapons. Just writing this last part sounds exciting, but in the Red Lotus, the bad guys are almost as dull as bureaucrats. We never get the why they do it; the one trait the bad guy has, he is into darts. Apart from giving him a quirk just for the sake of it, this Douglas is tedious.  Seeing that we are talking about a guy messing with a disease that could kill millions, it is peculiar.
Setting this story partly in Vietnam, Bohjalian explores or, rather, touches on veterans' stories. Still, these accounts come over as anecdotal, don't merge with the central theme, and never rise to the ones that have already entered the canon.
The part I liked is the description of the protagonist; she is sympathetic, believable, a girl on a cycle tour of Vietnam with her boyfriends of six months, was an intriguing starting point. Maybe if we had read more about the boyfriend while he was still alive, this would have worked. Again, never reading about their interactions, their relationship, watching him lie to her, removed me from this tale. The culmination was the only well-executed and tense part, but these days a thriller needs more than a last shootout to compete with the many fine ones out there. This book feels like the restaurant I ate in Edinburgh this year. It jumped on the fusion trend many years too late, and the ingredients didn't marry at all.

The gist:

After six months of dating, Alexis joins her boyfriend Austin, on a cycle tour through Vietnam. One day he goes off alone to pay his respect to the place where his father and uncle respectively got wounded and died. Austin never returns. When his body is found, and his death is ruled an accident. Alexis can't believe it. Back in New York at work in the hospital, where she met her boyfriend, Alexis continues her search for the truth. Not only she learns her boyfriend was a liar, but he may be involved with people messing with deadly infectious diseases.