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LOVE SONGS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE by Colin Cotterill: Book Review

Laos is a country far from the United States.  Unless you’re a history buff or “of a certain age,” as they say in magazines and newspapers, you may not be familiar with its history in relation to the Vietnam War.  Reading this novel is like taking a mini-course in the aftermath of that war’s history.

“I celebrate the dawn of my seventy-fourth birthday handcuffed to a lead pipe.  I’d had something more traditional in mind….” That’s the opening of Love Songs from a Shallow Grave.

Dr. Siri is the hero, in every sense, of Colin Cotterill’s series of books set in the Laotian capital of Vientiane in the late 1970s.  The doctor is a passive Communist and ready to retire when the new regime takes over from the monarchy, but he’s forced into becoming the country’s one and only coroner.

In Love Songs he has recently married Madame Daeng and is looking forward to a relaxing weekend with her when he’s pulled out of the local cinema by the Vietnamese head of security.  Laos is an independent country, but it is very dependent on good relations with Vietnam, its more powerful neighbor.  So the doctor reluctantly follows Chief Phoumi to the former American compound where they find a young woman who has been run through with a fencing sword, an epee to be exact.

Then, a couple of days later, another young woman is found in a similar situation, run through with yet another epee.  What can be the connection between these two women, who as far as can be determined were strangers to each other?

The usual group of Dr. Siri’s friends appear in this novel.  There’s the police detective Phosy, his wife nurse Dtui, morgue assistant Mr. Geung, the doctor’s close friend Civilai, and of course the doctor’s new wife, Madame Daeng.  In addition to helping Dr. Siri, each has a story within the novel that helps bring the history of Laos into sharper focus. 

Although the reader knows from the beginning that Dr. Siri is in prison, it’s impossible to figure out how he got there and why. The mental diary in which Dr. Siri reveals his thoughts doesn’t tell us until nearly the end of the novel, and these thoughts are interspersed with the straightforward plot of the main novel.

Dr. Siri is a wonderful protagonist.  He’s smart, courageous, and pragmatic–he has to be to get along in the new Laos.  But he’s also caring and empathic, traits that are not highly valued at the time and place in which he lives.  It’s  the combination of both sides of his character that makes him so fascinating, as well as the multi-layered history of his country.

This novel, along with the others in the series, isn’t easy reading because the history of this country in the 1970s isn’t comfortable to read–it’s filled with torture and betrayals from all sides.  But knowing people like Dr. Siri and his friends are there fills the reader with hope.

You can read more about Colin Cotterill at his definitely off-beat web site and read an interview with him at the NPR web site.