Monday, February 25, 2019

Review of City Without Stars by Tim Baker (2018, Faber and Faber)

In Ciudad Real, on the Mexican border with the US, corruption and murder is endemic. Drug cartels vie for power, a fraudulent church is laundering cash, sweatshops are exploiting workers, and women are being murdered at an unprecedented rate. Pilar, a union activist, has travelled to the town to fight for the rights of women workers despite the dangers from the bosses’ thugs. Detective Fuentes is meant to union-busting, but is more interested in taking down the local cartels, despite the warnings from his bosses to steer clear. Both want justice and are determined to achieve it, even if it means putting their own lives on the line. Wary of each other and are unsure who to trust they form an uneasy alliance against forces that seem too deep rooted to topple.

There’s a lot going on in Tim Baker’s tale of crime, corruption and murder, City Without Stars, much of it depressing and lacking hope. Set in modern-day Mexico, close to the US Border, the story explores the unrelenting exploitation of women workers in sweatshops, the vicious rivalries between drugs cartels, a rotten church that harboured child abuse and now runs a criminal enterprise, endemic police corruption, and the rape and murder of women on an epic scale (at nearly a 900 at the time the story is set). Baker weaves these threads together through the work of union activist, Pilar, and honest cop, Feuntes who are both seeking justice and to expose and purge the cancer in the city’s society. It’s an ambitious story, but it is not an easy read given the focus, the scale of the violence, and the depth of institutional corruption. For the most part, it is also thought-provoking and engaging, but it starts to derail towards the end, the sections becoming shorter and the story petering out, avoiding a final denouement and leaving the resolution to the reader’s imagination. I don’t usually mind ambiguous endings, but my sense was that this story ended about thirty to fifty pages too short, which was a pity. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting tale that casts a light on the logics and consequences of a dysfunctional society.

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