“Book Review: Falling Into the Light”
Reviewed by Liam Anthony
A poignant fictional tale of one man’s spiritual journey, who just so happens to be the Dalai Lama
M.J. Wiley’s historical novel Falling into the Light is part fiction and part meditation. Beginning with a beautiful prologue on the history of Buddhism, this novel offers keen insight on the importance of the role of the Dalai Lama while entertaining us with smart narratives and a terrific lead character.
The bulk of the novel follows this Dalai Lama, whose real name is Gyatso, and how his insecurities toward his spiritual role lead him on a journey from Tibet to America. In addition to his doubts about being a spiritual leader, the burgeoning political conflict in 19th century China also gives him the impulse to travel abroad. In haste, Gyatso boards a ship heading for San Francisco, and with the help of another traveler, he disguises himself as an English-speaking layman named Li.
M.J. Wiley thrives in his characterization of Li and his characterization of 19th century America. Not only does his lead character encounter myriad obstacles on his way to spiritual enlightenment, but those obstacles help portray the realities of the time period in America where racism and greed clash with its bright ideas of freedom.
As a writer, Wiley throws Li into the deep end, showing us that the challenges he is avoiding in Tibet are waiting for him in different guise in San Francisco. As Li feels constantly real in the face of his obstacles, I’m compelled to flip pages, to see if he can overcome his problems without the fanfare of a temple or his congregation—only as an individual, only as Li.
If we’re not already enthralled with Li’s steps toward spiritual triumph, we surely will be soon—as he gets a job working for President Lincoln. He forms a cordial relationship with the president, who acknowledges Li’s wisdom, and soon, he’ll be close enough to provide some much-needed guidance.
But this novel isn’t only about Li’s spiritual journey; it’s also a touching love story. Shortly after Li meets Rose, he’s entrenched in his feelings for her, doing all he can to lift her spirits and help her return as a hopeful figure for her community. In a story so deeply involved in spirituality, this love story is a very nice touch. I do wish we got a bit more out of Rose’s story in the end, but I’m happy it’s here nonetheless.
Li’s humility as a protagonist is refreshing. He’s someone I’m glad to have met and am better off because of it, and I’m confident that other readers will feel the same. This fictionalized story of the Dalai Lama makes for some truly compulsive reading. A novel that looks at identities as evolving, Falling into the Light is a strong reminder that we can look inward at ourselves while offering positive light to the lives around us.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Historical Fiction
Print Length: 210 pages
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