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THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN'T DIE
by Colin Cotterill
Soho Crime, February 2013
307 pages
$25.95
ISBN: 1616952067


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Dr Siri is, as his many followers know, a doctor, formerly the national coroner of Laos, now retired and living with his wife, Mme Daeng, who is the proprietor of the best noodle shop in Vientiane. The time is 1978 and Siri's hopes for a peaceful retirement are once again about to be disappointed.

Siri, though at heart a rationalist, a man of science, is nevertheless host to the spirit of a thousand-year-old shaman and thus able to see the ghosts of the dead. He'd mostly rather not have this ability, but there you are. Most frustrating is his inability to understand what the spirits are trying to say to him. So when he is asked to accompany an expedition that is to retrieve the bones of a long-dead brother of a Laotian general, buried in a riverbed when the boat he was on sank, Siri's reluctance is overcome by the opportunity to consult with a witch who is also along as a guide. Perhaps she can help him communicate better with the ghosts.

The witch, or ba dong, has an intriguing history. While her house was being robbed, she was shot and killed in her bed. Everyone saw the body. Then she was cremated, as was the custom, But three days later, she was back home, all in one piece. The only difference was that she was now able, she said, to communicate with the dead and find their lost remains, thus allowing their relatives to give them a decent burial. She is, incidentally, a very attractive woman, more attractive indeed than before her unfortunate demise(s), and Mme Daeng is not altogether pleased at the amount of time Siri is spending with her.

Mme Daeng has a project to occupy her, however. She is writing her memoirs, her recollection of the role she played in the war for independence from the French, when she was a kind of Laotian Mata Hari, becoming intimate with French colonial officers to uncover their secrets. She killed a fair number of them along the way. She was motivated not solely by patriotism, but also by a desire for revenge for the terrible injustice a pair of Frenchmen had visited on her crippled sister. So, now that she has grown old and happily settled with the love of her life, she looks back with considerable contentment and very little guilt on her wartime exploits. Her memoir, set in italics, provides a very useful reminder to the reader of the history that underlies the Dr Siri series.

Colin Cotterill has the enviable ability to entertain the reader while never losing sight of the underlying tragedies upon which his narrative floats. Dr Siri has led a long and often difficult life, but bears neither resentment nor grudge, unlike certain other characters in the story whose fixation on the past gets them into serious difficulties. He has a wryly detached sense of humour that makes it impossible for even the most sceptical of readers to dismiss the visitations from the other world completely. Instead we tend to hover, rather like the ghosts themselves, between two worlds - that of our ordinary, practical experience, in which a woman's surviving two deaths can be explained without recourse to magic or supernatural intervention and, well, the other, in which it can't.

Siri has been absent for a couple of years and there were fears that Cotterill had abandoned him for the fresher fields of Thailand and the much younger Jimm Juree. Happily, this does not appear to be the case, and the conclusion of this book suggests that Siri has at least one further adventure in him. I for one certainly hope so.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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