What really happened to Austin at the bar the night he met Alexis? What is the significance of those little packets of energy gel he had with him in Vietnam? If the marks on his fingers were not cat bites, as he claimed, then what exactly were they?
And, perhaps worst of all: Why did the backpack he carried with him the day of his fatal bike ride contain, among other things, a dress for a woman who was size zero, when there is no way Alexis could fit into something that small?
Alexis becomes an amateur detective of sorts, but she is also a fully-realized character. Haunted by the sudden death of her father when she was little, at odds with her high-achieving, overly critical mother, she is well suited to her job in the E.R., which constantly reminds her of life’s fragility, of how close we live to the abyss.
“She felt no need to tend to herself,” Bohjalian writes, “when she was tending to people who, at least that moment, were dramatically worse off than she was.”
There’s an array of pleasantly unsettling characters here. A special shout out to Douglas Webber, champion darts player and rat enthusiast, and to Oscar Bolton, his nervous, younger sidekick, and to a couple of people determined to help Alexis discover the truth. Ken Sarafian — a private investigator and ex-cop who has grim memories of his time serving in Vietnam and who recently lost a daughter to cancer — proves to be a particularly satisfying ally, with his psychological acuity, his sixth sense for deception, his dogged research skills and his Glock semiautomatic pistol.
Bohjalian is a pleasure to read. He writes muscular, clear, propulsive sentences. Even his unlikely scenes ring true, as in a tour-de-force climactic episode set inside a rat-research lab in which three of the four characters present are suddenly incapacitated in different ways. (The reasons feel a little close to home, in Alexis’s case. “She was feeling fuzzy, lightheaded and febrile. Weak. Was it the flu? Maybe.”)
As suspenseful as it is, “The Red Lotus” is also unexpectedly moving — about friendship, about the connections between people and, most of all, about the love of parents for children and of children for parents. Bohjalian is a writer with a big heart and deep compassion for his characters. Just try not to think about the rats. They’re everywhere.