The Changthang Plateau lies in the centre of Tibet. A vast, rolling grassland stippled with azure-blue lakes and ringed by snow peaks, it is home to seven-year-old Gongzha and his family who live, as their ancestors have done for centuries, by herding and hunting. But it is 1967 and the Cultural Revolution is seeping across China. Not even the grasslands of Tibet are immune. As the Red Guard systematically loot and destroy Tibet’s monasteries, Gongzha helps hide two treasures belonging to his local temple: an ebony-black Buddha marked with an ancient symbol and a copy of the twelfth-century text the Epic of King Gesar, written in gold ink. The repercussions of his act will echo across the decades.
Love in No Man’s Land is a sprawling epic that goes from the 1960s to the 1990s. In that time, you see how life for the families who live on the grassland of Tibet change a lot, but at the same time they still keep a lot of their traditions and history. For instance, even though roads and cars start to become more common, there’s still so many places where modern civilisation hasn’t touched it and people still live how their ancestors did before them.
The writing in Love in No Man’s Land is beautiful and evocative. It really paints a vivid picture of both the harshness of the vast grasslands but also the beauty of them too. With the mountains and lakes, the wild animals (wolves, yaks, antelope and bears all play a big part), and the changing weather, it all feels so magical and far-removed from “the real world”.
Love (as you might guess from the books title) is a big theme of this book. Gongzha has a childhood sweetheart, he loves his family and he’s respectful of the grassland and the creatures who live there. He has a big heart and seeing him deal with tragedy from a young age (death and violence are not uncommon in the communities he is a part of) and how that shapes him is interesting.
As well as Gongzha and his personal journey, a big part of Love in No Man’s Land is this mystery surrounding an ancient symbol. It’s in caves, on statues, on bears, and it seems to be a part of the very essence of the grassland. Gongzha encounters it at different points in his life, each time learning a bit more about his people’s past and how they could possibly be connected to the symbol, but it’s not something that he spends his life pondering.
While Gongzha is the main protagonist you meet a lot of different characters. These people dip in and out of Gongzha’s life, and sometimes they’re the children of someone Gongzha used to know, meaning it can be difficult at times to keep track of who is who and how they’re connected to one another. That being said, having so many characters helps this word feel lived in and real. Love in No Man’s Land is in the third person and while the majority of the book is from Gongzha’s point of view, a lot is also from the point of view of the various characters that are in Gongzhas life, even if for a short while. Some might be the focus for only a page or two, while others have more of a decent sized chunk. There are some coincidences where people encounter one another and don’t realise at first that they might have a couple of people already connecting them. But on a whole, these connections seem organic as they are a people who have lived in this part of the world for generations and rarely move far from their families.
I learnt so much about the Tibetan herder’s lifestyle and how it’s evolved over the years from reading Love in No Man’s Land. I think I preferred the atmosphere this book evokes more than anything and I didn’t always feel that connected to Gongzha which is probably down to us having so different lives. It was still a fascinating read – especially this mystery to do with the symbol – and a beautifully written one too. 4/5.