Monday, November 26, 2018

Review of Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari (2009, Unbridled Books)

Peter Niels is an American journalist who used to cover war-torn parts of the world, but has shifted to general interest pieces and has travelled to Taiwan to research a story on religion. He’s accompanied by Pickett, a photographer. The pair travel to the Taroko Gorge, a national park and one of the island’s better known tourist destinations, and one of its Buddhist temples. Resting along a path, three Japanese school girls wander by. It is the last time they are seen and when they fail to return to their coach and class mates the alarm is raised. By the time the police arrive it is dark and the search will have to wait to the following day. Niels and Pickett, along with the Japanese teacher and four class mates remain at the site, staying in the visitor centre. Already tense due to the disappearance of the girls, they start to bicker and simmer, and the approach of a typhoon adds to the strain.

Taroko Gorge focuses on the unfolding drama of three Japanese school girls going missing in a Taiwanese national park. The last two people to see them are a disillusioned American journalist and his drunken photographer. Their class mates did not see them slip away or have no idea as to where they were headed. As night falls, a local police inspector who is wary of the involvement of Americans and Japanese visitors arrives. Unable to search in the dark, the Americans, the teacher and four school children remain on site, staying in the visitor centre.  Ritari explores the disappearance and the subsequent wait and search through four of the characters – Peter Niels, the journalist; Tohru Maruyama, the class rep; and Michiko Kamakiri, a jealous classmate of the missing girls; and Hsien Chao, the detective – using four first person voices. The resulting perspectives enable the reader to piece together what happened and why, which no-one character has a full-handle on. Ritari does a nice job of elaborating the characters and the relationships between them, with the emotional games of the school children replicated amongst the adults, who can’t help but think the worst of each other. The mystery of the disappearance is also nicely revealed. The overall effect is a story that is more like a play, exploring human nature with the characters limited to the stage of the gorge and visitor centre.

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