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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Taroko Gorge

Jacob Ritari’s debut novel, Taroko Gorge, offers a new take on the classic whodunit mystery. In the classic manner, Ritari has placed his murder victims and their likely killer in a self-contained setting, one from which no one is likely to have come or gone unseen. The setting is Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge, a tourist attraction within one of that island-country’s national parks. When three Japanese students (fifteen-year-old girls) who are in Taiwan on a school trip suddenly disappear, the number of suspects is rather limited – and the finger-pointing soon begins.

Among those at the park center to visit the spectacular gorge, are a middle-aged American reporter and his photographer, a young man who copes with the disappearance of the girls by getting drunk – and staying that way for most of the book. Other possible suspects include a busload of Japanese students, their teacher/trip guide, and employees of the park itself. When the local police, led by a tough old sergeant, arrive, however, it seems that the Americans draw most of his attention. When the girls are not found by the end of the day, the Americans, along with four of the students and their teacher, volunteer to remain in the park office overnight to help the police in the search planned for early the next morning.

Ritari tells his story through the first person accounts of several different narrators, including reporter Peter Neils, the police sergeant, the class student leader, and a student who sees one of the missing girls as her romantic rival for the potential affections of several of the boys in the class. As would be expected, based on how different the speakers are, their narratives are uneven in content and reliability. Each person knows something the others do not and most seem to have a legitimate reason for feeling guilty about the disappearance of the missing girls.

Taroko Gorge is long on atmosphere and character, especially when an unexpected storm drenches the park with a blinding rain that lasts for hours, again delaying the search for the girls. Jacob Ritari seems to know Japan and Taiwan well and, by getting inside the heads of his various characters, he reveals much about cultural differences and similarities. Interestingly, each group (Taiwanese, Japanese, and American) seems to struggle a bit with its own prejudices and inherent distrust of the other groups – but in a way, each group admires the others. Ritari does seem to struggle a bit when he tries to speak as a 15-year-old Japanese girl but, perhaps, this is more a reflection of the empty-headed character he has created than it is of the author’s writing. He certainly fares much better with the voices of the Taiwanese police sergeant, the American reporter, and the young Japanese class leader.

This is an interesting first novel and Jacob Ritari has placed himself on my map as a young writer I will be watching for more from in the future.

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)
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