Book review: The Dharma Expedient, by Neville Sarony

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 5:30pm

The Dharma Expedient

by Neville Sarony

Vajra Publications

Neville Sarony is well-known in Hong Kong legal circles as a silk specialising in medical negligence, personal injuries and crime, but he is probably more convincing with facts than fiction. The former British officer's Himalayan thriller swirls between a breathless ode to Nepal's "roof of the world", and a cliche-ridden romp through the foothills of vanity publishing.

Yet The Dharma Expedient has the makings of a ripping yarn. A former officer in a Gurkha unit, Max Devlin, loses his tourist-expedition business in Nepal to a corrupt, xenophobic government, but is hired by a Thai professor for a trip into the Himalayas - only to realise, too late, that the expedition and its participants are not what they seem.

Readers expecting a high-altitude adventure might similarly feel roped into the whimsical traverses of an inexperienced novelist: the characters lack the legs for the overly long, predictable plot. Devlin echoes 1950s safari-suit types such as Stewart Granger in Bhowani Junction, and John Mills in Ice Cold in Alex, and is predictably brave, emotionally flawed and wooden. Surrounded by equally courageous and dependable "Johnny Gurkha" types and colourful Tibetans, "Devlin-la" finds a young, sassy heroine, and the sexual tension simmers in Sarony's exotic backdrop. The professor is a caricature of wiliness, and the other villains are guffaw-inducing parodies of evil, lost in a trail of adjectives, and often left dangling in location switches.

Sarony also overloads The Dharma Expedient with travelogue. He describes Himalayan life in detail, but lingers too long over yaks' milk and the many forms of local dress. He has an admirable command of Gurkha-speak, peppering his text with "Colonel Sahib"s and "huzoor"s, and even lapses into the lyrics of a folk song, further delaying the plot. But he does have a credible knowledge of weapons and can choreograph a fight for intrepid readers who can stay on the 337-page novel's track.

Sarony takes his readers into remote parts of the Himalayas without a properly scaled map, leaving them unable to place the culture and beauty he describes so lyrically. He forgets Nepal is unexplored territory to many people, and overlooks the reader-friendliness of J.R.R. Tolkien's charting of Middle-earth and C.S. Lewis' Narnia. As a result, the reader might feel excluded from Devlin's strategy as the plot thickens in Nepal's Hetaura, Amlekhganj and Birgunj. The author also underplays his knowledge of Hong Kong and its 13,000-strong Nepali community. Had he based his opening scenes in Lockhart Road, he might have drawn more readers into his world.

The Dharma Expedient could have read better if its Kathmandu publishers had pitoned Sarony to a plot, and used spell-check. Slip-ups such as "geurilla" (sic) warn wannabe writers to think twice about throwing time and money at compliant editing.