||Amazon.com's Best of 2001
Given the critical and commercial success of Eliot Pattison's Edgar-winning debut novel, The Skull Mantra, which painstakingly limned contemporary Tibet's harsh beauty and defiant fatalism through the stoic perspective of Shan Tao Yun, a Chinese bureaucrat imprisoned in a Himalayan labor camp, it's no wonder the author's second novel returns to this hauntingly scarred country. But Water Touching Stone also widens the author's geographical and social scope. Shan must find a killer who is stalking orphan boys in the high mountains and deserts of the Xianjiang Autonomous Region.
Gendun, the senior lama at the monastery that has given Shan sanctuary, announces to his student, "'You are needed in the north. A woman named Lau has been killed. A teacher. And a lama is missing.'" Though reluctant to leave the gentle presence of the monks who are balm to his crippled soul, Shan realizes he has no choice:
Gendun had told him the one essential truth of the event; for the lamas everything else would be mere rumor. What they had meant was that this lama and the dead woman with a Chinese name were vital to them, and it was for Shan to discover the other truths surrounding the killing and translate them for the lamas' world. It turns out that Lau had taken upon herself the care of the zheli, a group of orphaned children from all corners of Xianjiang, and strove to help the children retain a sense of native identity in the face of the Poverty Eradication Scheme, which is Beijing-speak for the destruction of the herding clans and the transformation of the western steppes into a region of exploitable resources. Shan wonders whether officials from the People's Brigade (perhaps the "Jade Bitch," Prosecutor Xu Li), or the feared secret police "knobs" from Public Security decided to put a stop to her subversive activities. But when the children from the zheli begin dying amid horrific tales of the "demon" that came for them, bleak politics must grapple with darker imaginings.
The novel sports a practically Dickensian cast of characters, which might overwhelm the narrative by sheer numbers, yet Pattison manages to add depth to even the most minor of characters, and at the moments when the troupe threatens to become completely unwieldy, he deftly redeems the situation with moments of quiet poetry:
On they went, three small men in the vastness of the changtang, the wind sweeping the grass in long waves around them, the snow-capped peaks shimmering in the brilliant light of dawn. As they appeared over a small knoll they surprised a herd of antelope, which fled across the long plain. Except one, a small animal with a broken horn, which stared as if it recognized them, then ran beside them, alone, until they reached the road. --Kelly Flynn
An unlikely group of outcasts dash across the remote northern reaches of the Tibetan plateau, summoned by the news that a venerated school teacher has been murdered and an ancient lama is missing. The two old Tibetans are rushing to restore the spiritual balanced caused by the violent death. The sullen Tibetan resistance fighter is racing to battle a new foe. But Shan Tao Yun, the exiled former investigator from Beijing, just released from four years in the gulug, has set out to find justice, an elusive goal among the embittered and forgotten people of western China.Soon Shan finds himself in the dangerous world of the borderlands, populated by vengeful Chinese officials, corrupt soldiers of the People's Liberation Army, daring smugglers, hidden Buddhists and remnants of the proud Kazakh Moslem clans, as he follows the grim path left by the killer. One by one, young boys, all students of the dead teacher, are being murdered.Guided by a spirited young Kazakh woman, Shan begins to peel away the many layers of secrets that hide the true motives of the killer, stumbling across the body of a dead American in the local prison, being brought to the haunting ruins of an ancient buried city along the Old Silk Road, searching for an apparent infliltrator of the dissident movement, and discovering a team of foreign scientists clandestinely working to reveal the truth about the region's ethnic heritage.One moment experiencing the serene reverence of an ancient shrine, the next feeling the horror of being buried alive in the desert, Shan encounters the many faces of courage found among oppressed peoples. Ultimately Shan's answer can be found only by revealing still greater tragedies, and justice, in the rough form he has come to expect in Tibet, is available only if he is able to piece the hatred and distrust that has been bread by Beijing's rule.