Recently I won my Top Reader reality-TV challenge*—a timed challenge!—by using my bookworm know-how to find an amazing book in an airport bookstore. You know, that moment of truth in the reader’s life when she has only a few minutes before her flight, and is confronted with a wall of generic bestsellers. The wrong choice will result in a dull 3-6 hours. In such conditions I’m happy to read a literary bestseller, a thriller, a romance, nonfiction, violent historical fiction about knights (strangely preponderant in the U.K.)…I’ll read anything as long as it’s tightly written and plotted, suspenseful and has realistic characters. You would think that every bestseller would be like that, but sadly no, very few. (Why mass-market fiction sells like gangbusters and is genuinely hard-to-read is a topic deserving its own post.)
I was hindered—or possibly helped—by having either read and disliked, or tried to read and not finished many of the literary entries available in the shop. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Johnathan Franzen’s Purity, The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth MacKenzie, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible… all books I’ve already tried and discarded. I have also learned the hard way in previous airports about the later works of Phillipa Gregory, posthumous works by Robert B. Parker and Lee Childs, full stop.
The book I chose was The Rose of Tibet, by a writer I hadn’t heard of named Lionel Davidson. I chose it mostly because it was written in 1962 and is a thriller involving a hapless Englishman going on a desperate quest to find his lost filmmaker brother on the slopes of Mount Everest. The vintage re-release and the locale made the book seem a little bit different. I like Everest stories. The cover copy promised a thrilling, can’t-put-it-down plot. And here was the first paragraph:
In the summer of 1949, when he was twenty-seven, Houston found himself having an affair with a married woman. She was thirty, and he was not in love with her, and he had gone into it only because he was bored and lonely. He didn’t think that the affair would outlast the summer, but it did, and by the autumn, when he started school again, he was wondering how to end it. He was a bit disgusted with himself.
It’s hard to say why I fell in love at first sight with this paragraph. The man-at-loose-ends was the perfect starting point for an adventure. I liked the character right away for sleeping with an older woman, and for being lonely. His slight self-disgust was human and unusual.
And then what follows is almost a James Bond-level thriller, with the exotic locale, Chinese-Tibetan politics in the 1950s, a forbidden romance and brilliant, excellent salting of the drama and suspense throughout the book’s early pages.
The narration is also really interesting. In my copy there are two prologues, one from a contemporary writer, which contains many spoilers and should be skipped, and another by Lionel Davidson (second prologue, should definitely be read), who claims to be merely the editor of the following adventure story. Reading alone on the airplane I wasn’t quite sure if Davidson was in truth the author or just the editor, if I was reading fiction or non-, and I really enjoyed the suspense. The insertions of Davidson’s editorial voice served to dramatically increase the tension, with tantalizing asides like “oh, of course, Houston hadn’t murdered anyone yet…”.
As promised on the cover, I couldn’t put it down. Alas, Top Reader is not a reality show that exists, but if it did, I feel confident that a panel of judges would pick The Rose of Tibet as the most readable book in that whole store, and I’d be moving on to the next round…..