Based on a 1931 British expedition to award a knighthood to the King of Bhutan, this 2004 novel continues this Welsh writer's exploration of the impact of violence, power, and corruption upon cynical leaders and eager followers seeking meaning within or despite relentless machinations of empire and greed. This is an area that Barry has already shown he knows well. He delved into the impacts of a similar story of Jesse James and Robert Ford in his 2000 epic "The Chivalry of Crime".
Here, a character taken from a real-life doctor, half-Irish expat Christina Devenish, begins dramatically. In her early thirties, a free-love advocate, a Theosophist who finds no contradiction with the practice of medicine, she possesses her spirituality and her sexuality confidently. She and her Indian comrade find themselves barricaded and then set on fire as their birth control clinic in Calcutta is attacked by mobs seeing their feminist cause as an insult to Muslims and Hindus alike. Christina, recuperating, decides to answer her father's appeal to see him in Bhutan, where he advises the revered religious figure of the Shabdrung, who's caught up in the Great Game between China, Russia, and Britain for control of Tibet and the larger Himalayan region. Opposed by what Barry calls the "Maharaja," the King resents competition and Britain sides with him against what the Shabdrung has entered as a Chinese and Gandhi-allied counterforce to Raj-friendly geopolitics.
While Barry's depiction of Bhutan lacks the sensual and visual evocations of many other writers who've visited this kingdom, it's refreshing to have a more physically rendered, less New Age enraptured presence within this often romanticized realm. "She set foot on the soil of Bhutan, Alice through the looking glass racked with menstrual cramps, the sweat cooling on her forehead and her back under her sticky frock, and she was desperate to empty her bladder in the shadows of the luxuriant rainforest." (112) She falls in love with her escort, the Welsh-born Political Officer Owen Davies. He has reconciled his status from a lowly class and a resented principality with his service to the Crown, and he steers Christina's visit to her father--with its own challenge to the Raj--with his own desires, sexually and diplomatically.
These emerge convincingly. Sex happens naturally and in appropriately related if graphic detail, and the drives impelling Owen and Christina entangle with the Bhutanese mission to the competing rulers that the Raj must please, appease, and tease into submission. However, the Bhutanese, who have resisted occupation by any foreign regime, manage their own forces. These fight back via first a mystic medium and then the Shabdrung. Here, Barry faces a difficulty. How to create on the page as vivid a sensation of the spiritual as the temporal and sexual powers contending for Christina and Owen's allegiance?
Her father interprets the Shabdrung's teachings of the cosmological present, our Iron Age, when the "dregs of time" overwhelm humans, and "devoured the physical body and clarity of mind." (213) These dramatize what the author heard from Vajrayana teachers himself, and Christina filters these through an increasingly tilted sensibility. I liked these scenes, and the novel concludes with a very haunting change in the protagonist that accelerates this shape-shifting that begins in Bhutan. However, the later chapters of this novel, as with his preceding one, prove less gripping.
The shifts in tone and mood appear more erratic than "The Chivalry of Crime," and the promise of this novel's entry into a place where psychic battles within Christina and Owen erupt as their political and spiritual forces swirl remain half-realized. It's frustrating as the clash of the ethereal with the practical, the exotic and the vicious within historical material suggests such rich possibilities, which Barry keeps at a distance amidst the politicking that overtakes the passions of the two main characters. Furthermore, Bhutan doesn't come as alive as I expected on the page, and the slow pace before the conclusion diminishes the impact of the innovative final scene. Still, given few novelizations set in pre-Independence, guerrilla-threatened India not to mention the usually soft-focus depictions of neighboring Bhutan, it's worthwhile for adventuresome readers. (Amazon US 12-31-12)