Book Review: The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian
By Ray PalenApril 17, 2020
The Lotus Flower, normally recognized for its’ resplendent red color, is the national flower of both India and Vietnam. At one point towards the end of this ironically timely novel by Chris Bohjalian, it is pointed out that the lotus flower is known for laying atop the water during the day and then sinking at night. It then rises again at dawn, almost like it is reenacting ‘the resurrection’.
Chris Bohjalian has been writing mostly top-notch literary fiction for several decades. Over the past decade or so he has dipped his toes in the psychological thriller, mystery and even the horror/supernatural genres. His current novel, The Red Lotus, is a mystery/thriller with an underlying message that I am sure Bohjalian had not foreseen when he set down to pen it. I will rip the band-aid off right now, without feeling I’m giving anything away, by indicating that the ‘Red Lotus’ of this novel is a dangerous poison that could potentially cause a pandemic if not handled properly. Based on the current nightmare circumstances our world is currently facing, that description is sure to send a very real chill down your spine.
NYC Emergency Room Doctor Alexis Sinclair is on an interesting vacation with her boyfriend, Austin Harper, in Viet Nam. Rather than strictly sight-seeing, they are there with a touring bicycling group. Another now quite ironic line in the novel is when one of Alexis’s colleagues indicates that if a pandemic were ever to hit NYC it would be attributable to the sea of germs on the seats and handles of bikes. Once again, chills down the spine. Unbeknownst to Alexis, Austin suggested the trip for his bike group to Vietnam for ulterior motives. Much like the infamous chemical Agent Orange that inflicted so many U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam war, that area of the world is rife for production of various chemicals that can serve either productive or lethal uses.
One day before the group was to leave Hoi An for their next stop on the tour, Austin took a solo bicycle ride and was never seen alive by anyone again. When he doesn’t return for several hours a search of the area begins and local law enforcement is contacted. As more time goes by, Alexis decides to also contact the American consulate in Vietnam. It turns out that was the right move because Austin’s body eventually turns up on the side of a small highway. The initial determination is that he must have been hit by a van or small truck, the force causing instant death. The local police promise to look into the hit and run but do not believe it will turn up anything. As an ER Doctor, Alexis asks to not only confirm the body in the morgue but also examine it. Austin’s body is in bad shape, with much of his skull gone. The one thing that sticks with her is the puncture wound in one of Austin’s hands. This was suspicious because Austin’s bicycle gloves that he rode with did not have any rip in them.
When Alexis returns to NYC she does not have any time to be distraught. After seeing both Austin’s family and her own, she continues to pursue her own personal investigation into a boyfriend who she realizes she didn’t really know that well at all. She has no time to feel deceived, right now she just wants the truth. This will involve her hiring a Private Investigator, ex-NYPD Detective Ken Sarafian, who is doggedly determined to help her find answers. For one, the way Alexis and Austin first met was when he was admitted to her ER for a gunshot wound in the shoulder. Apparently, he had been struck by a random bullet from a gunman who was attempting to rob the bar that Austin and his ‘friend’ Douglas were playing darts at. Alexis not only asks Ken to look further into that incident but she also questions the small scars on Austin’s hand that he claimed were cat bites and scratches. Based on her medical experience, she believes they looked more like rat bites.
The Red Lotus is a slow burn of a novel that will keep you turning the pages as deliberately as Dr. Alexis Sinclair pushes through the web of lies to find out the truth about Austin Harper. Like I alluded to earlier, the ‘Red Lotus’ that Austin was killed over was definitely not the flower from Vietnam but a symbol for something much bigger and far more dangerous than any of them could have possibly imagined. Reading it now during our own global pandemic adds an additional level of thrill to this novel—a result that must make veteran author Chris Bohjalian feel fairly ambiguous.