James Hilton’s 1933 Lost Horizon is one of few books that has survived the test of time yet continues to fly low under many radars. A mix of intrigue, spiritual profundity, exotic adventure and (perhaps) a touch of fantasy, the story of Conway and the mysterious Shangri-la he encounters is full of thought-provoking questions, and thankfully, not many answers. A book which will turn in the mind after, its length does not describe its depth.
Set in the era of the book’s publishing, Lost Horizon is foremost a frame story. The book opens with a group of school fellows, now in middle age, discussing a former classmate who has disappeared in Southeast Asia under mysterious circumstances. One of the group possessing notes taken from a delirious conversation with the man just before the man disappeared, the narrative soon switches to the notes, and the wild, possibly imagined tale leading up to the disappearance takes center stage.
Conway, the man who has disappeared, is the idyll of the English gentleman—at least at the outset. He’s intelligent, he speaks numerous languages, he’s cultured, has impeccable manners, plays the piano, and has served his country in World War I. Handsome to boot, he seems every mother’s dream of a son. Kidnapped and taken to a strange land, he soon finds himself dealing with awkward social situations and a sub-culture with more doors closed than open. A mystery within a mystery, the secrets of Shangri-la are slow in coming, but expand with each reveal that culminate in a major decision for the man.
In thematic material Lost Horizon is rich. Not the utopia one initially may think Hilton is building toward, much deeper questions arise. Conway a veteran, he suffers from the effects of the war, something which may or may not influence his behavior, from love to travel. Moreover, the possibilities laid at his feet by the people at Shangri-la prove anything but easy in the offing. More detail perhaps spoiling the book, suffice to say placing one’s self in Hilton’s shoes really makes the reader wonder: what would I do? The cycles of thought which result are at turns giddying and gratifying.
Though obviously a product of colonial times (i.e. Britain’s superiority as an imperial power), Hilton nevertheless shows a solid amount of sensitivity and knowledge regarding foreign, particularly Asian, cultures and beliefs. Though words which are now considered racist appear in the narrative, the religion Conway encounters in his travels shows influence and openness from a wide variety of cultures. Though Western-centric beliefs peep through, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism retain the greatest presence. Perhaps even rebellious, the novel would have at least been considered progressive in its time for including and promulgating non-Christian beliefs.
A short novel (230 pages), the major drawback to Lost Horizon is its lack of details. Deserving to be fleshed out, the setting and characters, though well sketched, do not truly come alive were the book to have had a third layer supporting and uplifting Conway’s notes and the frame story. Style and structure near perfect, the reader is nevertheless never quite fully drawn into Conway’s thoughts and world, everything having to be taken at face value. For what it’s worth, Hilton does remain even handed, story balance equal throughout. But certainly something would have been gained for a little more detail in setting and character.
In the end, Lost Horizon is an appealing novel for anyone looking for food for thought. Well-written with many nice turns of phrase, not to mention having a structure which perfectly complements the plot, the novel is short but profound. Discussion on utopia, happiness, desire, love, eternal travel, and escape is at the core. Though a product of its times, e.g. the perspective on Eastern peoples, the book is wide open to the religions and philosophies of Asia. The commentary not obviously all bad, China actually changed the name of one of the Tibetan cities in Yunnan to Xianggelila because of the novel. Readers of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, and J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World will enjoy the novel.