Lost Horizon by James Hilton

WIN_20150319_121106 Sic transit gloria mundi. James Hilton is all but forgotten now but he had a more than successful go at Hollywood (winning an Oscar) and wrote several novels, two of which – Goodbye Mr Chips (1934) and Lost Horizon (1933) – are known even by people who’ve never come close to reading them.  The latter gave us Shangri-La, without which many seedy boarding houses in British seaside resorts would have far less interesting names. The story’s influence is pervasive, from Arthur C. Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names Of God to Eagles’ Hotel California. The monastery (well, lamasery) of Shangri-La itself is ‘a strange and half-incredible sight’, a group of coloured pavilions clinging to vertiginous cliffs. The icy-capped peaks which surround its valley make it virtually unfindable, while glacial streams fertilize the plains below: crash-landing in a storm nearby in a hijacked plane are four westerners: Conway, Mallinson, Barnard and the missionary Miss Brinkley. The modern plumbing at Shangri-La is not the only mystery. (Although, with no Bathstore outlet within thousands of miles, exactly how they hauled bathroom fittings over the mountains remains a burning question). There are very few people around, and those who are seem not very keen to organise a departure for the stranded guests. Perhaps tomorrow. Mallinson is very frustrated by this. Miss Brinkley sees it as her calling. Barnard is altogether more difficult to read. Conway, a 37-year old British diplomat and Sinophile, rather likes Shangri-La. But then as a young man he fought in the trenches of World War One: he has a better reason than most to crave emotional wellbeing. Indeed, one constant in much popular literature of the 1930s is the threat of war – presciently, as it turns out – and the peace agrees with him. Whatever it is in the atmosphere which seems to slow down time at Shangri-La has a similar effect on the narrative, and the writing is overcome by torpor in parts of the final third. After getting a history lesson from the High Lama, who has morphed into Basil Exposition, Conway has a choice to make. He takes a while making his mind up. Yet this is still one of the few novels you actually wish was longer.

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