Laos is an impoverished, landlocked socialist republic in southeast Asia, bordering with the more dominant nations of China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. THE CORONER'S LUNCH is set in 1976, a year after the end of a long civil war that resulted in the Soviet-backed communist Pathet Lao coming to power. The protagonist of this wonderful book is Siri Paiboun, a doctor and a widower who, rather than being able to enjoy a peaceful retirement at the age of 72, is made the country's only coroner. One of the many delights of this book about ordinary people's experiences of living under the communist regime are the small everyday acts of subversion and rebellion that avoid the notice of the unimaginative authorities but cause a liberating sense of personal triumph that sustains people through each day.
Siri has been a communist ever since his student days in France, but only because of the woman he loved and subsequently married. Although perceived by the authorities as a safe pair of hands, Siri in fact is a detached observer of the soulless regime. One of the many pleasures of this delightful novel is the life Siri has made in his hospital lab with his two co-workers: Drui, a spinster who reads out-of-date fashion magazines and looks after her ill mother; and Mr Geung, a man considered "simple" (he has Down's syndrome). The collaboration and relationship between these three in their working and, occasionally, personal lives is a subtle yet sharp portrait of how the human spirit can prevail against the most deadening official dictates and the most extreme poverty of resources.
Siri himself lives in a room in a building with many others, including the predatory Miss Vong, whose curtain is always flickering and who bullies Siri into digging trenches for the Party on his Sunday off. Siri has other neighbours, however, whom only he can see – the spirits of the dead, who come to him at night and reveal to him the stories of how they met their ends.
Turning to the actual plot, Siri is faced with two baffling and dangerous cases. One concerns Mrs Nitnoy, the wife of a senior government official, who has died mysteriously while at a Women's Union meeting. Another concerns the bodies of three men who have been discovered at the bottom of the sea, tied to rusty bombshells. Siri's professional attitude leads him to dig into these obscure deaths against the desires of officialdom to the extent of endangering himself. He also feels driven to continue because of his spiritual visitors and the final rest that will be brought to them by the knowledge of how they met their ends.
The investigation and the story of Siri's life continue almost in parallel. We meet a range of sharply observed characters, some sympathetic and others less so, but all convincing. The strength of the book lies in the beautiful touches of detail, the irony and the coded conversations – for example between Siri and his lunchtime friend Civiali, whom he meets every day on a nearby log; Siri with his baguette always specially made by Auntie Lah of the bread trolley. There is excitement too, as the energetic Inspector Phosy and a policeman from Vietnam, Nguyen Hong, become involved in the cases under investigation, and Siri is sent into the jungle to find out why the past three military commanders of a unit helping to rebuild the local communities after the war, have mysteriously died.
Siri remains unbowed by the many petty bureaucratic indignities of the regime, and by the backward and poverty-stricken existence he is forced to lead. He maintains his dignity and sense of self throughout. The book loses its unerring tone only once, in an unconvincing scene where Siri turns the tables on his young and patronising boss, Judge Haeng, after Siri cannot stand another "burden-sharing tutorial" from this incompetent yet high-handed youngster.
THE CORONER'S LUNCH has been likened to the Botswanan series of books by Alexander McCall Smith, but I would say it is, on the evidence of this first instalment, vastly better: first because it has no element of the slightly patronising tone that sometimes mars the (otherwise charming) books by McCall Smith; but mainly because THE CORONER'S LUNCH has much more substance. The deaths provide many enlightening insights into all aspects of this mysterious country and its societies, and all the many disparate threads are bought together in a truly admirable and masterly way at the end.
I was lost in admiration at this wonderful book: for the convincing and sympathetic portrait of a man and his little circle of friends and their lives; and for the exciting and clever dramas that, in the end, come to a completely satisfying conclusion, even solving a mystery very personal to Siri himself as well as making neat, barbed little points about how the regime is undermining any semblance of the values its constant propaganda asserts.
Colin Cotterill is an extremely talented author who, by his lightness of touch and his simple, direct writing style, draws the reader in totally to a complex, many-layered world. The book is so full of beautiful little touches and nuances that you cannot fail to be won over. I'm very glad indeed I read this superb book, and I urge you to do so as well.