~by Jacob Ritari
Taroko Gorge, which I was delighted to receive from Unbridled Books through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program, is Jacob Ritari's debut novel. One of the great things about Early Reviewers is that I discover books that I am interested in that otherwise I probably wouldn't have heard of; Taroko Gorge is a perfect example of this. A couple of things particularly caught my attention. First of all, the title Taroko Gorge. At one point I had a roommate from Taiwan and she had mentioned Taroko National Park to me before. And secondly? Okay, I admit it, Japanese schoolgirls. Ritari makes use of a clash of cultures--Taiwanese, Japanese, and American, each with somewhat strained relations--and combines his personal experiences and knowledge of all three to bear on his story; Ritari has both lived and studied in the United States, Japan, and Taiwan.
When three ninth grade Japanese schoolgirls go missing on a class trip to Taiwan's Taroko Gorge, two drunken American journalists find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time--the last people to have seen the girls alive. As more time passes, the less likely it is that the three students will be found again. But the search is delayed while the remaining group waits for the Taiwanese authorities to arrive. The Americans stay to help investigate, but promptly come under suspicion themselves. Nobody seems to trust anyone, even the students start accusing each other, and the situation quickly becomes volatile. Time is running out for the girls and it appears as though things are only going from bad to worse. In stressful circumstances even good intentions are easy to take the wrong way and the results can be devastating.
Taroko Gorge is told from the perspective of four different characters: Peter Neils, one of the American journalists; Michiko Kamakiri, the last classmate to have seen the girls and who also holds a grudge against them; Tohru Maruyama, the guilt-ridden class representative; and Hsien Chao, the no-nonsense Taiwanese detective leading the search. Ritari brings out their individual personalities, problems, and prejudices with ease. Each narrator seems to be unreliable to some extent--Michiko even admits right off to being a liar--but the whole truth is slowly revealed as the novel progresses. (And just as a warning, the Americans have very foul mouths. Realistic? Yes. Did it bother me? No, but it might others.) In some ways, Taroko Gorge reminded me of Battle Royale which I recently read and which was briefly referred to in the book. Particularly, the psychological elements--the group dynamics, trust issues, assumptions, and thoughtless accusations--all feature prominently. Not to mention the fact that we're dealing with the same age group of students whose class trip has gone terribly wrong.
A reader with some familiarity with Japanese culture or with Buddhism will probably get more out of the Taroko Gorge than someone without, but it is not necessary to enjoy the story by any means. The tenses used in Ritari's prose are a bit unstable, slipping between past and present, but as the story is told in the first-person, I think this adds to the conversational tone of the writing. It is not always clear which language is being spoken at any given time, and some portions are left untranslated, but I was never confused as to what was being said or going on. There was one thing that did annoy me about Ritari's writing and that was the frequent use of an ominous "it." Generally I could tell from the context what was being referred to even if "it" wasn't explicitly stated, but I found it to be an unneeded way to create mystery and tension, especially as Ritari provides plenty of that to being with. Although not without some flaws (what book is, really?), Taroko Gorge is a strong debut. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am very glad I had the opportunity to read it and I wouldn't hesitate to pick up another work by Ritari.