Paul Adam
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007
416 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)

Oracle Lake opens in Dharamsala, India, with “the scent of death in the air,” a “stillness of despair” enveloping the “shabby collection of buildings clinging precariously to the hillside,” and proceeds to pose a fascinating question: what will happen when the Fourteenth Dalai Lama passes away?

His Holiness himself has been somewhat noncommittal on this point, leaving open the possibility that the next Dalai Lama may be born outside Tibet or may not even return at all. But this fast-paced new novel by the English novelist Paul Adam goes straight for the trickiest scenario, imagining that the next Dalai Lama has been born somewhere in occupied Tibet and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile has to find him before the Chinese government does. It’s a great setup for what should be a riveting adventure.

Unfortunately Oracle Lake never quite delivers on its promising premise. This failure is due in part to the unwelcome presence of Maggie Walsh, a British photojournalist obsessed with bringing the world’s tragedies to network television. Paul Adam chooses her as his principal protagonist, perhaps in an attempt to make the book more accessible to Western readers. Sadly, Maggie is a nearly perfect cliché: the tough-talking war correspondent who has no patience for sentimentality and is inclined to respond to earnest questions with a “cynical snort.” Her last vacation was “three weeks in a Russian army detention cell” in Groszny, though she confides knowingly that “most people wouldn’t count that as a holiday.” All this is particularly regrettable as Maggie steals the limelight from Adam’s many more intriguing characters, particularly Tsering, the Tibetan monk assigned to lead the search party into China. He may be something of a stock character, too—the conflicted monk who can’t help but wonder about the lay life he’s left behind—but he’s vastly more interesting than Maggie.

Oracle Lake bears the subtitle “A Thriller,” and it will likely appeal mostly to devotees of that genre. Although the book is immensely readable, much of the dialogue is almost comically bad. The low standard is set early on, in a throwaway sequence set in Latin America that serves to establish Maggie’s bona fides as a world-weary reporter. Here she is arguing with an American military adviser:

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