Mr. Hilton opens the book with one such picture that he repeats through the story. Three men are in a British embassy sitting room, smoking cigars, and discussing a mystery. That mystery concerns what happened to an aeroplane that disappeared with four passengers aboard during the evacuation of the Indian town of Baskul, which was under attack by rebels. Aboard the plane was a British Consul named Hugh Conway. The men all knew Conway, to one degree or other, and all agree he was a remarkable, clever fellow, though "rather slack." His fate, and that of his three companions, is unknown.
Later, two of the men, the unnamed narrator and Rutherford, a novelist, retire to Rutherford's hotel room where they continue the conversation in a sitting room (with more drinks and cigars). Rutherford tells the narrator that he actually encountered Conway at a hospital in Chung-Kiang, a few months before. Between there, and a later voyage they shared on a ship from Shanghai to Honolulu, he obtained an amazing story from Conway concerning his hijacked flight from Baskul and the events afterwards. Rutherford wrote a manuscript of Conway's story, which he provides to the narrator whose reading of it constitutes the story of Lost Horizon. Here the narrative shifts back to those events as seen from Conway's viewpoint.
In the midst of the rebel assault on Baskul, Conway and his companions are kidnapped and taken by aeroplane to a very remote part of Tibet. There they are met by a party that takes them to a lamasery called, Shangri-La. The place is dominated by the mountain, Karakal, and sheltered from the harsh elements by peaks that rival Everest in height. Shangri-La is huge, with gardens, courtyards, a library stocked with many European works, and even musical instruments with stores of classical compositions (some unknown to the world). It is supported by a village nestled in the valley below that grows food in abundance due to its sheltered location. There is also much gold there, mined to support the lamasery's purchases of items from the outside.
Shangri-La is paradise--a peaceful, contemplative place, where physical and spiritual needs are well met. Dealing with it all is the challenge for Conway and his companions, and they do so in their own ways. The reader sees that what constitutes paradise is very much in the eye of the beholder.
In my first readings of Lost Horizon, I was uncertain of the story's point and somewhat put off by the lack of a black-and-white conflict (where's the Nazis and Zombies, or yetis?). This likely came from my conditioning by the over-hyped, over-tech'ed, entertainments of our time. I suspect that's a problem for a lot of contemporary readers. Age, however, seems to have tempered my conditioning and allowed me, in this last reading, to appreciate and greatly enjoy the novel's low-key intensity.
That subtle intensity is exemplified in the character of Conway. He has the image of a "take charge" hero and he impresses people with his intelligence and strength--so much so that his associates call him "Glory Conway" and wonder why he hasn't risen higher in government service. His job is that of British Consul and he has never gotten the desirable assignments that could have helped his career (he is thirty seven at the time of the story events). We find out that his image is just that, and Conway is very deliberate in creating it because it's just helpful in maintaining his job. Conway is capable in his career, but unmotivated. This is the worker's dilemma and Conway states it simply and brilliantly in conversation with the Shangri-La High Lama:
It always seemed to me in my profession that a good deal of what passed for success would be rather disagreeable, apart from needing more effort than I felt called upon to make...
Amen, brother. Our corporate masters condemn such an attitude as lazy, and our fellow workers readily take up the cry. They willingly, even arrogantly, sacrifice their time--their life--to their job. They even provide their own electronic irons to bind themselves to their oars. The High Lama comments:
Laziness in doing stupid things can be a great virtue...
Shangri-La is a product of brilliant minds and enlightened souls that shatter Conway's delusions and entice him to abandon the outside world with it's desires for destruction, and rest in a harbor of art and learning and mindful sophistication. Conway is drawn to it while his vice consul, Mallison, is not. We see this in both of them falling in love with Lo-Tsen, the young Manchu girl who frequently entertains at Shangri-La with piano recitals. Conway's love is from afar, appreciating her grace and her musical eloquence. Mallison's love is more immediate and carnal. Love flowers for them both, but produces differing blossems.
The difference in Conway and Mallison's relation to Lo-Tsen--indeed, to Shangri-La itself--is in large part a function of where each is in their life's journey. Mallison is young and eager to get on with living, so he can't stand the slow pace of Shangri-La. Conway is nearing mid-life, having been broken and disillusioned by the first world war. In this, he is almost a Joseph Conrad antihero, but he is not beyond redemption, and he believes he has found it in this place, evidenced by his appreciation of Lo-Tsen.
The great theme of Lost Horizon is, to me, the consideration of what paradise means to each of us; how we deal with it if we find it or create it, and how it can survive in a dark, destructive world.
Mr. Hilton explores the possibilities for the personal part in the reactions to Shangri-La of his characters. His answer to the survival part he puts in the words of the High Lama:
We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect.
In other words, "let's hope they don't notice us," for knowledge of Shangri-La by the outer world would surely bring about its destruction. These days, Shangri-La would be hyped and trivialized, and treated as a reality show. A celebrity would shoot a cable channel episode there, remark on it's beauty, simple foods, thin air, and declare the stories of long-lived lamas to be superstition. Corporations would fight over the gold.
No book is perfect and I have a few criticisms of Lost Horizon. I thought the secondary characters, especially Barnard and Miss Brinklow, were too one-dimensional. Though Mr. Hilton made his points for each in their relations to Shangri-La, I believe those points would have been better made with more "showing" of more facets of their characters and stories. Also, he should have explored more of Shangri-La itself in his narrative. The lamasery's wonder is conveyed more in the words of the characters than in the reader's feeling it through the prose. A good balance there would only have enhanced the storytelling.
At the end of the book, the narrative returns to the original narrator and Rutherford, where we find them drinking and smoking over the implications of Conway's story and facing their own reactions to it. For the reader of Lost Horizon to do the same was, I think, Mr. Hilton's intention and is likely why the book is such a classic. It is certainly one of my favorite books of all time.