Water Touching Stone by Eliot Pattison: A review

While I was reading this book, the news broke of the 101st self-immolation of a Tibetan in Nepal since 2009. The self-immolaters are protesting the Chinese occupation of their homeland. 

It was a sad reminder that, even though these books are fiction, they are based on very real events; namely, the sixty-year-long effort by China to subjugate Tibet and obliterate its culture and religion.

Of course, for the traditional Tibetan, culture and religion are very much the same thing. Evidently, that is what the Chinese state finds so offensive.

But, as this book makes clear, it is not just the Tibetans whose culture is under attack by the Chinese government. The other ethnic minorities in the western China borderlands suffer from the same efforts at repression. The Kazakhs, the Uighurs, and the Tadjiks, as well as the Tibetans have a sad history of interaction with the giant to their east. And all of these peoples play a part in the story told in this second book in the Inspector Shan series,Water Touching Stone.

The story briefly is that an honored teacher has been murdered. The lamas in the secret gompa where the fugitive Inspector Shan has been staying since his release from the gulag divine that it is necessary for Shan and two of their number to travel to the remote northern regions of the Tibetan plateau, where the teacher was murdered, to restore the spiritual balance which has been upset by her violent death. They are accompanied by one of the purbas, resistance fighters against the Chinese.

This motley crew of outcasts heads into the wilds of Tibet. They soon discover to their horror that it is not only the teacher who was killed. Some of her students - all boys - have been killed, too, and it is feared that the others are targeted. 

The herdsmen in the area attribute the deaths to a demon. Shan isn't so sure. He believes the serial killer is all too human and that the motive for the killings may be found in the Tibetan struggle against cultural annihilation. 

Along the way, we meet secret Buddhists, some proud remnants of Muslim clans, vengeful Chinese officials, American anthropologists who are in the country illegally, soldiers, smugglers, and people who are just trying to survive. It is a heady cultural mix. The book is at its strongest in its exploration of the customs and daily lives of all these diverse groups and of how they coexist in a hostile land. It was on that level that I most enjoyed the tale.

But the book is classified as a mystery and that, frankly, didn't work so well for me. The story was all over the landscape - literally - and it didn't hold together very coherently for me. Now, maybe that's because the book is telling a story of a very non-literal society which exists on a spiritual more than a physical plane. Perhaps my western brain just isn't geared to absorb it, but I found the things that I look for in mysteries - the character development, the plotting - to be weak. 

Moreover, there was SUCH foreshadowing! One character in particular - and I don't want to give anything away here - was constantly looking forward to a certain happy event. So much time was spent in building the event up that I, the jaded reader, felt, "Uh, oh, this isn't going to end well." It didn't.

Eliot Pattison is obviously very sympathetic to the cause of the Tibetans and to the other cultural and ethnic minorities of that troubled region of the world and he writes movingly of them. Perhaps the best way to enjoy these books is as anthropological or sociological instruments and to not worry so much about the obviousness of the "mysteries."


  1. Just finished reading this very good book. Interestingly, I found it in a library in China! Somehow it must've slipped through the cracks.

    1. That is, indeed, somewhat surprising, considering the unflattering view of the Chinese government expressed here. Pattison's series is very sympathetic to those who struggle against that formidable entity.


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