Utu, by Caryl Ferey (author of Zulu), is another success from a man with the ability to combine graphic violence with cultural clarity and relevance in a way I have yet to experience with any other author. Fans of European noir in the manner of other Europa authors such as Izzo or Carlotto would do well to brace themselves before embarking with Ferey into the labyrinthine worlds he creates. Fans of Ferey's previous work will find many similarities between Utu and Zulu (beyond the presence of two U's in the title of each). The structure, style and extreme violence and sexuality found in Zulu are present as well in Utu. Thus, if you enjoyed Zulu, you will equally like Utu. However, if Zulu pushed the envelope further than you could take, approach Utu with caution.
Ferey once again effuses such a deep and rich cultural knowledge of his setting as he did in Zulu. Utu is filled with the history of the Maori people of New Zealand, tribal structure, social hierarchy and racial tension between the Maori and white populations of the country. As awful as this sounds, the Maori have as bad a lot as the Native Americans of the US, if not worse. I hate to admit enjoying learning as much as I did throughout such an intense work, but it really did lend another level to my overall liking of Utu.
Drawn out of his alcohol and drug-fueled existence in Australia back to his native New Zealand and the police force he left after the death of his friend and mentor, Paul Osborne returns to handle a case requiring his own particular skill set. Thus, Osborne embarks on an alcohol and drug-fueled quest for truth in an Auckland that seems more shadowy, dark and corrupt than the scenery would suggest. The prevalence and ease of drug acquisition and use would almost lead the reader to think that cocaine and other serious drugs are legal in the country-they are not. However, one must question if Osborne is in fact human considering the activities he manages to pursue despite not being sober for more than a few hours at a time throughout the work.
Upon his return, Osborne quickly realizes that there are no coincidences, no one to trust, and no definitive truth. His partner is a somewhat sniveling, by the books detective with a wife who factors more heavily into the plot that one might expect. His bosses obviously care more about staying in the good graces of Auckland's moneyed class and its politicians. His past constantly nags at him, threatening to undermine his present-day sanity. His only ray of light? A young medical examiner that may possess the keys to heal him, if they can only survive the case first.
Zulu's protagonist Ali Neuman was a flawed hero, but still a recognizable hero. Utu's Osborne, by contrast, might take the award for most repellent protagonist ever. He's amoral, an alcoholic, a drug abuser, a philanderer, a lawbreaker and a rogue. I do not exaggerate when I say Ferey leaves no doubts as to the wretchedness of Osborne. You may be inclined to see a more positive view, just know that right when you may think Osborne is turning a corner, Ferey drives him right back into the darkness that Osborne so comfortably inhabits.
Like Zulu, Utu brims with graphic depictions of violence and sexuality, sometimes both at once. Where Zulu featured a primarily male-dominated principle cast, readers quickly learned that female characters were no more safe or righteous than their male counterparts. Utu sees Ferey expand his female cast, particularly in the principle roles. This means readers are in for more violence committed by and upon female characters.
Utu is compelling, fast-paced, visceral and in many ways brilliant. The way Ferey pulls his disparate plot threads together is nothing short of genius. If you think you know what's coming, you don't. Utu lacks certainty; no character is safe, no plot development is trivial. Its goal seems to be to challenge, entertain and educate its audience. Readers should know that going in, as I cannot imagine the reaction of someone getting this book with no prior knowledge of Ferey as an author of the graphic nature of this book. Me, I thoroughly enjoyed it as I did Zulu. I love a novel that keeps me guessing until the very end, freaking me out and leading me along a maze of twists and turns along the way just to make me go "oh!" at the end. Utu is another fine, if bloody, addition, to Europa's collection of international mystery novels and my eleventh Europa for the year.