Caryl Ferey’s “Mapuche,” his third work published by Europa here in the US, continues this author’s streak of stirring, gritty, page-turning thrillers. He has emerged as the easy favorite among my book club. Following “Zulu,” “Utu” was highly anticipated last year and for “Mapuche” they refused to wait longer than necessary, so we set the date for a few weeks after it was released. The hype was daunting. Thank goodness, it was well-deserved hype. To a one, “Mapuche” was a home run. We had some differing thoughts on where it ranked within Ferey’s canon to date, but everyone enjoyed this Argentinean set mystery involving politics, money, lost children and the slaughter of thousands upon thousands of innocent people perpetrated by the government that was supposed to protect them.
Jana and Ruben, Ferey’s latest protagonists, an investigator and an artist thrown together to solve what at first appear to be unrelated disappearances quickly realize that the mystery they face is much larger, lethal and historical than either could have imagined. Much of what makes Ferey remarkable to me is his ability to immerse the reader completely (almost suffocating us) in a place that is both foreign and dangerous, never once allowing them to feel safer than his characters yet so engrossing that leaving his world is not an option. Whether it’s the slums, docks or well-to-do areas of Buenos Aires, the mountains of Southern Argentina or the lush tropical forests, the environment Ferey recreates kept me prisoner the entire read.
Ever a theme in his works, Ferey uses a master’s brush on the interweaving of history and its impact on the present here. There are paragraphs and excerpts you could pull and think you were reading straight nonfiction, but within the structure of his story and the strength of his characters it never comes across as such.
This drive that keeps the reader locked in is only heightened by Ruben and Jana, easily Ferey’s most likeable and captivating protagonists. More than any other characters of his, I found myself pulling for these two. Every cliffhanger, every scrape, every heartbreak I felt I experienced along with them. Prior to this, in “Zulu” and “Utu,” the rough edges of his protagonists left the reader questioning whether they should root for them. That said, one member of my book club missed the visceral grittiness of “Zulu” and “Utu” while reading “Mapuche.” True, “Mapuche” is no beach read, with scenes discussing rape, violent murders, attacks and torture in graphic ways. However, more than in prior works, Ferey alludes to or discusses these acts sometimes after the fact or off-screen versus the in-the-trenches perspectives. We speculated if that was partly due to Ferey’s “Zulu” being picked up for film distribution and this book showing more of a screenwriter’s tendencies OR (and this one is where I side) if as he wrote more books Ferey has simply improved on weaving the violence into the story. I never felt taken out of the story due to the severity of the action in “Mapuche” as I had in Ferey’s others. As a result, I felt more connected, more invested in this story.
“Mapuche” is not a read for those who like to forecast, or those who need to understand things as they occur. Explanations come late and unexpectedly, requiring a trust in the author’s ability to bring the disparate threads together eventually. It is a roller coaster for sure, with the bulk of the book club unable to stop while finishing the last third of the book. The bad guy are very bad, and the good guys are very good and always this close to being overwhelmed by the mystery they are attempting to unravel. Running through both Ruben and Jana readers find the undercurrents of Argentinean history. The treatment of the native peoples, the sad, tragic, violent and recent memories of the “disappeared ones” play key roles in the development and ultimate resolution of the story. In grad school, I read some about the history of the violence in Argentina that occurred within the last 30-40 years thus I came in slightly prepared (versus “Utu” where I had no idea of the way the Maori were mistreated), and somehow Ferey breathed a fresh horror into the subject I would not have thought possible.
I would recommend “Mapuche,” as would my book club. We split as to whether it should be the first book by Caryl Ferey you read; some say yes, since they liked this but loved the other two more. Others said that it should be last, since it is less brutal in its violence and might lull you into false expectations for the others. Either way, we hope that Europa has plans for more from him soon. This is my 10th Europa this year for the Challenge.