Taroko Gorge Paperback – Jul 6 2009
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About the Author
Jacob Ritari has studied with the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist organization in Taiwan and studied Japanese language and literature at Japan’s Sophia University. He lives near New York City.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The author's bio says he's lived in both Taiwan and Japan and it shows through these multiple points of view. Each character brings a unique cultural perspective to the narrative, a perspective that at times accentuates the difference between peoples and at other times shows how we are all really the same. The best examples of this are the various interplays between the Japanese students. The teen girls are obsessed with the teen boys and the teen boys are obsessed with the teen girls, yet neither side really knows how to deal with the other. At the same time, the teen obsession has a different character to it than if these were American teens.
The main characters have a lot of depth to them, so much so that we are introduced to some of the demons lurking in their past. This is what makes the psychological drama so believable: we are given insights into the characters' motivations. Through these revelations, the reader will develop a lot of empathy for the people they meet.
If you are tired of the same recycled plots in most detective stories these days, give Taroko Gorge a try. If you enjoy exotic locales, this novel may leave a little to be desired as it focuses on people, not location. Highly suggested for fans of psychodrama and character driven stories. Four and a half stars out of five!
American journalist Peter Neils and his photographer companion Pickett are on assignment in Taiwan. With a few days rest for themselves the two decide to make a trip to Taroko Gorge and go sightseeing. Taroko Gorge is formed by lovely trees, cliffs, huge rocks, and is bordered by the sea, and age old temples. Also arriving is a bus load of Japanese students on a field trip. All is fine until three female students become missing. After a short time authorities from Taiwan are called in to help find the girls. This is where the beautiful setting of Taroko Gorge quickly becomes a menacing environment. As the investigation begins all cultures are forced to work together to decipher the mystery. The tragedy becomes compelling when the reader is slowly lowered into a vat of deceit, lies, and decadence.
Jacob Ritari is exceptional at putting the reader in a calm lull, and slowly transforming it into a feeling of uncomfortable isolation. The biggest accomplishment of Jacob is the way he communicates the story. Each chapter is told through the eyes of a handful of different characters in the book. The reader gets to know the personalities, beliefs, and view points first hand. Good or bad, it is an obligation to stand in the shoes of those directly involved in this thriller. The imagination, creativity, and the fresh approach of Jacobs writing style is something that no one should miss.
"'If they just made being alive less searingly painful...'"
This novel is primarily about making sense of an accident - an accident the characters feel they could have prevented, or think someone else could have prevented. Class Rep, the senior member of the group, painfully describes his emotional state as he copes with the guilt of letting the girls out of his sight. A reporter and his colleague, having been the last to see the girls, offer their help in what appears to be a hopeless rescue effort. Various other characters, including a precocious teenager with a philosophical bent, insert a religious meditation on the disappearance - is it just one random event in a chaotic world, or is there really something - anything - guiding us in even the most senseless and painful human experiences?
As one character says:
"I once had a conversation with Chris Hitchens. He told me that religion preyed on people's fear of death, and I told him that if not for religion - it seemed to me - a lot of people might get away with never thinking about death."
While it's sometimes hard to take the meanderings of this group of people, it's also realistic. Faced with the increasingly likely prospect that three girls, known and even loved by some, what else are you supposed to do?
In searching for the elusive truth - about what happened, but even more about existence itself - the author presents the reader with its flip-side: The lies we require that hold us together, the things we tell ourselves and others to create a story that makes sense, or softens the hard blows, of reality.
"...there are, well, basically three views you can take about life. The first is that I don't understand it. The second is that I can't understand it. The third is that it doesn't make any sense."
Minor complaints: The middle chapters narrated by an adult, and one entire scene where, out of nowhere, comes a flashback that's wholly out of place and a bit melodramatic. I can't say that I felt the final chapter satisfying, or the philosophical musings compelling, but they gave food for thought. And that's the whole point: To think about life, to think about death, and to try to make sense of it all.
Other than that, the portrayal of youth and the novel's storytelling are entirely a joy to read. The cultural tensions present throughout the book added an important depth to the book. The native language of the characters were also pleasurable - I even learned some about the nuances of names - and jived in a way that it didn't in Oscar Wao.
Among those at the park center to visit the spectacular gorge, are a middle-aged American reporter and his photographer, a young man who copes with the disappearance of the girls by getting drunk - and staying that way for most of the book. Other possible suspects include a busload of Japanese students, their teacher/trip guide, and employees of the park itself. When the local police, led by a tough old sergeant, arrive, however, it seems that the Americans draw most of his attention. When the girls are not found by the end of the day, the Americans, along with four of the students and their teacher, volunteer to remain in the park office overnight to help the police in the search planned for early the next morning.
Ritari tells his story through the first person accounts of several different narrators, including reporter Peter Neils, the police sergeant, the class student leader, and a student who sees one of the missing girls as her romantic rival for the potential affections of several of the boys in the class. As would be expected, based on how different the speakers are, their narratives are uneven in content and reliability. Each person knows something the others do not and most seem to have a legitimate reason for feeling guilty about the disappearance of the missing girls.
"Taroko Gorge" is long on atmosphere and character, especially when an unexpected storm drenches the park with a blinding rain that lasts for hours, again delaying the search for the girls. Jacob Ritari seems to know Japan and Taiwan well and, by getting inside the heads of his various characters, he reveals much about cultural differences and similarities. Interestingly, each group (Taiwanese, Japanese, and American) seems to struggle a bit with its own prejudices and inherent distrust of the other groups - but in a way, each group admires the others. Ritari does seem to struggle a bit when he tries to speak as a 15-year-old Japanese girl but, perhaps, this is more a reflection of the empty-headed character he has created than it is of the author's writing. He certainly fares much better with the voices of the Taiwanese police sergeant, the American reporter, and the young Japanese class leader.
This is an interesting first novel and Jacob Ritari has placed himself on my map as a young writer I will be watching for more from in the future.
Rated at: 3.5
The narrow gorge and the storm give the book a claustrophobic feel. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, and it doesn't take long for the reader to wonder which of the narrators are reliable. Between doubting the characters' reliability and feeling closed in by the towering walls of the gorge and the curtains of rain, it's almost like being in the midst of a country house mystery.
The setting is well done and the varying points of view interesting-- those of the students so good that I can see this book also appealing to a younger audience. The one character I felt was under-utilized was the old Taiwanese homicide detective, Chao. I think Chao would make an interesting main character for a mystery series.
Although I did enjoy the characters and the setting, I felt that the book was a bit uneven. Everything at the beginning ratcheted up the suspense as to what happened to the three girls and which character was responsible. However, the cyclone then appeared and shut down both the park and the suspense. When all was said and done, the big reveal at the end was disappointing.
However... Jacob Ritari shows a boatload of potential, and I can't wait to read his second book!