I picked up this book many years ago at a small bookstore, judging by the title and picture on the cover that it might be some sort of ancient romance set in the mountains of Tibet. As it turns out, it’s actually more of an adventure story in the style of H. Rider Haggard than a romance, a simple linear plot buried inside a load of adventurous fluff.
The main character, a Londoner named Charlie Houston (ChaoLi HuTzung, as he’s also known in the book), isn’t actually much of a natural adventurer. When his brother’s film crew goes missing in a Tibetan earthquake, however, Charlie is tasked with the mission of finding proof of their demise for the sake of insurance claims. In those years (1950-1952), Tibet was drowning in its own mystical fears based on the inauspicious deadlines hidden inside their Buddhist calendar, not to mention the realistic threat of invading Chinese forces from the East. Thus, as Charlie makes his way from India into Tibet, he finds himself in more trouble than he could have ever imagined. With the help of his young Sherpa, RingLing, he crosses rivers, crests Himalayan peaks, and uncovers an ancient mystery at a female monastery hidden far away from civilization. Along the way, he also falls in love with a young Chinese girl, the 18th reincarnation of the monastery’s abbess.
Ostensibly, this is a true story, the record of which was found inside a number of hand-written notebooks by an inquisitive publishing agent. In fact, this aspect of the plot—whether or not this agent has the right to publish something so difficult to confirm—is one of the book’s great strengths, in my opinion. While the character, Charlie, started out as a fairly crummy traveler in general but eventually changes, grows, and adapts to the dangers, Lionel Davidson’s own struggles and growth as a publishing agent are the more entertaining. The novel includes its fair share of implied sexual rendezvous and it contains lots of mysticism in the Buddhist tradition, but it’s all portrayed as only “possibly” true, the publicist merely reporting what he’s found.
I found the book enjoyable yet long. I would have preferred the same plot in a much shorter format, like that of the quick-paced Geoffrey Household. I certainly won’t ever read the whole book again, and I doubt that I will ever try another by this author, as it would require too much time to read. Nevertheless, The Rose of Tibet was a fairly fun read. Besides, I was very happy to read a bit more about the mystical history of Tibet, a place I have visited and have found as mysterious as you’d expect. The terrifying cold that Charlie and MeiHua endured together certainly did not make me miss those mountains, but it was still nice to reminisce.