Home > Genre, memoir, nonfiction > Book Review: To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron (Audiobook narrated by Steven Crossley)

Book Review: To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron (Audiobook narrated by Steven Crossley)

Building in front of a mountain.Summary:
After the death of his mother, who also was his last living family member, Colin set out on a journey to the mountain of Kailas in Tibet.  The mountain is holy to both Hindus and Buddhists and is closely associated with the process of dying and crossing over.  Through his eyes we see the people of Tibet and his emotional journey.

I am not sure if words can describe what an epic miss this book was for me.  The combination of British western eyes othering Tibetans, an entire chapter dedicated to his father’s big game hunting, a surprising lack of emotional processing of death, and the *shudders* British accented narrator imitating Indian and Tibetan accents…..oh god.  It was painful.

I see nothing wrong with a Western person traveling and appreciating something revered in another culture.  If it is done right, it can be a beautiful thing. A lesson in how we are all different and yet the same.  Yet through Colin’s eyes I felt as if I was very uncomfortably inhabiting the shoes of a colonizing douchebag.  Perhaps part of it was the narration style of Crossley, but it felt as if Colin was judging and caricaturing all of the Tibetans and Indians he met.  There was so little empathy from someone supposedly on this journey to deal with death of loved ones.  You’d expect more from him.  I could accept this perspective more if either Colin learned over the course of the trip or this was an older memoir, but neither is true!  This is a recent memoir, and Colin is the exact same self-centered prick he was when he went in.

Similarly, Colin when he is not othering the Tibetans and Indians is either reminiscing joyfully on his father’s exploits as a big game hunter and basically colonizing douche in India or giving us a history lesson in Hinduism and Buddhism.  Ok?  But he’s not an expert in these religions and also that was not the point of the book?  A few explanations here and there, sure, but if I wanted to learn about Buddhism or Hinduism, I sure wouldn’t be getting it from a travel memoir from an old British dude.  I’m just saying.

Overall, this is an incredibly odd book.  It is a book out of time that feels as if it should have been written by an understandably backward gentleman traveler in the early 1900s, not by a modern man.  I honestly cannot recommend it to anyone.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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  1. May 16, 2012 at 3:36 am

    What a shame this book was so bad! I’m usually drawn into books about Tibet glad you warned me about this one. Have you ever tried Isabel Losada’s For Tibet, With Love I it picked up many years ago because I just loved the cover but it turned out to be a great book too. Losada is mad but also very honest and natural I thought she made a great narrator for her journey.


    • May 16, 2012 at 10:35 am

      I didn’t realize we share an interest in Tibet. Thanks for the recommendation of a better read!

  2. June 13, 2012 at 7:09 am

    Sorry you were disappointed by this book and had harsh words to say about the author. It may possibly be a question of viewpoint (just because Britons and North Americans share a language doesn’t mean they share a world view) and also because Thubron’s tone is rather dry (the traditional British upper-class sang-froid perhaps?). For an alternative view see http://calmgrove.wordpress.com/2012/05/12/kailas/ As my late parents were Anglo-Indians (and so from a rather lower stratum than Thubron’s parent) I was interested to read about his familial experiences and compare it with my own.

    I haven’t read Charles Allen’s book with a similar title (only his ‘The Search for Shangri-La: a Journey into Tibetan History’, which was similarly rather dry) but wonder if you have and what you thought of it?

    • June 13, 2012 at 8:59 pm

      I don’t dispute that there are different viewpoints in question here. Brits and Americans are very different people with vastly different cultures. You are absolutely right about that. However, that doesn’t stop me from finding Thubron to be classist, colonialist, and racist. In fact, I think that is frequently a problem among the upper-class Brits, and he just goes to prove that. I feel confident making this judgment, since he markets this book as a travel memoir. He is not presenting a character, but himself. I refuse to “respect” the elderly purely because they are old when they are wrong.

      I also must admit that I generally do not like many British things and would not have read this if I had realized it was a British memoir, but it was already downloaded by the time I realized that, so it was too late to change my mind.

      I tend to find British culture to be soaked with that “dry tone” that you mentioned that I honestly can’t stand.

      • June 17, 2012 at 3:18 pm

        Fair comment, except that I think your final statement a bit sweeping; I wouldn’t even consider characterising an aspect of North American culture in the same way; and I’ve known a few Americans in my time whose sensibilities were all very different.

      • June 17, 2012 at 5:55 pm

        Characterizing an aspect of one class of people is completely acceptable. Notice I said that CLASS is like this. Not British people. Very different.

        Also, I find it telling that you’re defending a man who is so unlikable.

  1. July 20, 2012 at 3:13 pm

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