Fiction Addiction
Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Lost in Shangri-La review

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Photos / Supplied
Photos / Supplied

The relative merits of fiction, non-fiction and fictionalised fact have been the hot topic of this month's Fiction Addiction book club. When we asked our readers to name your preference, Claire of Awanui responded: "I prefer reading books which are true. Sometimes fiction is true and sometimes non-fiction isn't true. Go figure!"

Good point. There's been an explosion recently of novels based on real people and events - including our feature reads The Conductor and The Larnachs - and a few high-profile faked memoirs, most notably James Frey's A Million Little Pieces and Norma Khouri's Forbidden Love.

Though I've read a fascinating and meticulously researched non-fiction book this month - Lost in Shangri-La: Escape from a Hidden World, by American journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff - it hasn't changed my mind about my preference for fiction. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the name and nature of this blog, two-thirds of you, dear readers, have declared that you also prefer fiction.

The fiction lovers among you tend to delight in escapism, especially Sarah of Mellons Bay, who wrote: "Whether I'm trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger or fleeing from the English redcoats in Jacobite Scotland, the chance to dive into a good book is definitely preferable to answering the call of the dishes in the kitchen."

Andrew of Whangarei enjoys fiction because: "It starts as the embryo of an idea and grows to a whole solely in the mind of the author until it has a life of its own." For Dick of Masterton, fiction is "as primevally comforting today as it was when traded around the camp fires of earliest man".

Weighing in for non-fiction is Hilary of Cashmere who believes real characters "take on an extra dimension - vary rarely does an author of fiction invoke real empathy with his characters". Joanne of Timaru finds fiction predictable: "Life itself is a mystery and carries us along on a never-ending tale of disasters, lies, deceit, love, hate, sadness, intrigue in a rush of impatience and daring." But some of you could not be persuaded to choose. Wayne of Christchurch wrote, "Each has the possibility of taking me into another world, another time."

Wayne would probably enjoy Lost in Shangri-La. The world is New Guinea, the time 1945. Three US Army staff survive a plane crash in dense uncharted jungle: a dashing young lieutenant whose twin died in the crash, a beautiful and spirited Women's Army Corp (WAC) corporal and a stoic Army engineer.

The trio must rely on their wits and courage to pick themselves up and find a way to signal rescuers, then on the mercy of the warring Stone Age tribes, then on the incredulous efforts of Army command.

Though the title flags what happens in the end, it's still an unpredictable tale, part boy's own adventure complete with daring air acrobatics, part anthropological study of the meeting of two very different cultures.

Zuckoff writes with pace and wit, and is a master at creating well-rounded characters, given the restrictions he faced in recreating a largely forgotten event of 65-odd years ago while not veering from the verifiable truth.

Case in point: his description of army filmmaker Alexander Cann, who parachutes into the survivors' camp in a drunken coma: "By that point in his life Cann had survived gambling away his inheritance, three divorces, an arrest as an actor-turned-jewel thief, a torpedo attack that broke his back, and a Japanese plane crashing into his ship. Under these circumstances, an uncontrolled, drunken sky dive into Shangri-La seemed an almost predictable next step."

The story is so detailed and well executed that it's sometimes easy to forget it's not fiction. But though Zuckoff gets remarkably far into his characters' heads, he is ultimately at the mercy of the information to which he had access. Thus he can't crack into the emotional depths that a novelist can.

One of the strongest voices is WAC corporal Margaret Hastings, thanks to a candid journal she kept while stranded. I assume she stopped writing once rescued because her voice peters out as the book reaches its rather abrupt ending.

After a plane crash that killed her closest friend, seven weeks in the jungle and a battle against gangrene that almost claimed her legs, her sole reaction to being rescued is a comment to a journalist who asks what she plans to do next: "I'd like a shower and a permanent."

Still, it's a ripping yarn and I recommend it to the non-fiction lovers among you. Next week I'm returning to pure fiction, with There But For The by Ali Smith, while Christine sticks with fiction based on reality, with Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. Click here to enter our competition to win both books.

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