If the coronavirus has you freaked out, this may not be the book for you. Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel couldn’t have had a timelier release, though. While “The Red Lotus” isn’t my favorite of his books, he’s a reliable author who can be counted upon to hold my attention, even these days when I’m reading so much on the computer for work.
Alexis is an ER physician who travels with her boyfriend of seven months to Vietnam on a trip with a biking tour company. Austin, who works in fundraising at the same hospital, is also on a mission to visit the spots where his uncle died and his father was wounded in the Vietnam War. He’s an avid and experienced biker, so it’s alarming when he doesn’t return from an excursion. Alexis joins the search with the local police and, from the beginning, feels like things aren’t adding up.
In another novel, “The Double Bind,” Bohjalian played that delightful trick where readers reach the end of the novel and find out nothing has really happened the way we thought; we’ve been taken in by an unreliable narrator. This book is the opposite: the reader is gradually let into the secret criminal world, while the main character goes stumbling along, playing with fire.
Alexis becomes more and more determined to find out the truth of what happened to her boyfriend and begins to suspect that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The fact that we are only a few steps ahead of her adds to the suspense as we watch her question and interact with characters who we’ve just learned are probably not to be trusted.
Probably. What Bohjalian does well here is create a sense of unease with the characters. Though we’re pretty sure that Alexis is soundly on the side of innocence, and another character soon reveals himself to be evil in the flesh, in between are a host of characters that we’re less sure about, including the boyfriend. It’s just enough to create a nice little knot of fear in your stomach.
Add to that the effective use of alternating points of view, some pretty scary speculations about biological warfare, and a compelling view of a country that has risen from the ashes like a phoenix. The red lotus is Vietnam’s version of that, a flower that sinks under water overnight and rises at dawn.
Wendy Migdal is a freelance reviewer in Fredericksburg.