The Red Lotus
Chris Bohjalian explores the delicate nature of human survival in his latest novel The Red Lotus. A tale of antibiotic resistant contagions, epidemics and the horrors of biological weapons, this book will have you cheering exterminators as the greatest heroes of our time.
They work in the same building but it takes a shooting for Alexis and Austin to meet. When Austin, sporting a minor gunshot wound, comes into the emergency room where Alexis is a physician, she is surprised to learn that he has a job with the hospital’s chief development officer raising money. It would have seemed more likely to meet a colleague in the cafeteria than the ER but the two quickly develop a camaraderie. Before long they are dating and at the end of six months, Alexis believes they are moving towards something serious. Austin seems to think so too; he is trying to get Alexis hooked on his own obsession, biking. To that end he arranges a multi-purpose excursion for them to Vietnam with a bike tour that will be near to where his father and uncle fought in the war. He plans to take a solo jaunt to the battlefield where his uncle was killed and the location where his father was wounded while there. Alexis plans to spend that time sipping wine and catching up on her reading by the hotel pool and that’s exactly what she does when the moment arrives. But as the day slowly slips into evening, she grows increasingly worried. She isn’t able to raise Austin on the phone, it is hours past when he said he would be back and he is in a foreign county, in unfamiliar terrain and with little knowledge of the local language. After a bit of pushing she is able to convince their tour guide to take her out in the company van so they can search the roads Austin was intending to take. They find only one flimsy clue of his presence on the route: a bright yellow energy gel dropped in the middle of the road.
With only that piece of evidence to guide them, Alexis calls the consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, who in turn involve the Vientamese police in the form of Captain Quang Nguyen. It doesn’t take the police long to discover Austin’s body. Alexis is numb as she goes through the motions of identifying him and arranging for transport of herself and Autistin’s remains back to America. She makes the return trip to New York in something of a fog but she doesn’t stay that way for long. She quickly learns that Austin had been lying to her and to his colleagues at the hospital about his family’s military history. Even as she tries to come to terms with that, an examination of the photos she had taken of his corpse before leaving Vietnam leads to her becoming obsessed with identifying some rather suspicious wounds on his body that wouldn’t have come from a collision with an SUV, which is the official cause of death. Determined to find answers regarding what actually happened, Alexis hires retired cop-turned private investigator Ken Sarafian and the two begin a hunt for the truth. Meanwhile, Captain Nguyen has questions of his own about the car accident that supposedly killed the young American and his continued investigation into the incident quickly turns deadly.
The reader knows what happened to Austin long before Alexis, Ken and Captain Nguyen figure it out. In the second chapter of the book, we are introduced to Douglas, an arms dealer, who snatches Austin off the street. We are also, over the course of the next few chapters, guided through just what Austin is actually up to in Vietnam and Douglas’s role in all of it. And finally, we are treated to numerous chapters – written in italics and penned by a nameless narrator – telling us how dangerous rats and the contagions they carry are. It doesn’t take more than the first hundred pages to put everything together. This isn’t so much a mystery as it is a race against the clock; the primary question of the narrative is will Alexis, Ken and Nguyen be able to counter what Austin set in motion before Douglas brings an end to their investigation.
I can’t say that I really cared and a large part of that is because I was the wrong audience for this book. I enjoy puzzling out the clues in a good thriller but while The Red Lotus’ blurb seemed to promise a mystery, the fact that the reader knows all the answers almost from the beginning kept the novel from being a genuine whodunit. As stated before, this is more of a mad scramble to save the world and given the real life dangers humanity is facing right now, I couldn’t get very invested in this artificial one. Additionally, in a world constantly battling to avert a naturally occurring pandemic I was bemused by people who would seek to manufacture one. And finally, I found all the information about rats, which took up a decent amount of page space, repulsive and a bit redundant. Everyone knows they are disease carriers; we don’t need the details on how and why.#
I spent more time baffled by Alexis than sympathetic towards her. She never really grieved Austin, but was consumed by a desire to discover why he told some rather innocuous lies. That seemed nonsensical to me, especially given how distant their relationship was. They weren’t living together, she didn’t have a key to his apartment, she didn’t know his friends, family or life history. Her investment in his death seemed to far outweigh her involvement in his life. I also felt like I never got to know Alexis; aside from a brief account of her mental history and fraught relationship with her mother, the author doesn’t give us much information about her. She felt more like a tool, a catalyst to keep the plot going, than a character.
To be fair, there are a lot of positives to the story. Captain Nguyen and Ken are charming, intriguing figures whose work unraveling the conundrum of Austin is fascinating. I couldn’t help but wish we had gotten more time with them. I was also fascinated by Alexis’s mother; we received a glimpse of her toward the end of the novel and I was intrigued by what I saw. Additionally, the author is an experienced writer whose smooth prose makes it easy to turn the pages; I might not have been riveted by the narrative but it wasn’t a chore to read it.
I think that a fan of disaster films and/or medical thrillers will probably enjoy The Red Lotus more than I did. I would recommend it to that audience.