Thursday, July 08, 2010

'Taroko Gorge' by Jacob Ritari

Fiction, 2010
Unbridled Books, eBook, 241 p.
From the publisher:
A disillusioned and raggedy American reporter and his drunken photojournalist partner are the last to see three Japanese schoolgirls who disappear into Taroko Gorge, Taiwan’s largest national park. The journalists—who are themselves suspects—investigate the disappearance along with the girls’ homeroom teacher, their bickering classmates, and a seasoned and wary Taiwanese detective. The conflicts between them—complicated by the outrageousness of the photographer and the raging hormones of the young—raise questions of personal responsibility, truthfulness, and guarded self-interest.
The world and its dangers—both natural and interpersonal—are real, changing, and violently pressing. And the emotions that churn in dark rooms overnight as the players gather in the park visitors’ center are as intense as in any closet drama. There’s enough action and furor here to keep readers turning the pages, and the cultural revelations of the story suggest that the human need for mystery outweighs the desire for answers.
As you know, I’m always interested in reading books with Japanese characters or settings so I was excited to hear about this new release from Unbridled Books.
Peter: I remember that first bus ride from Kaohsiung to Taroko Gorge. The road goes straight up the seaside cliffs, under arches of natural granite, and the bright blue Taiwanese sea in enough to kill the breath in you. The size of those cliffs is incredible and on a clear day there is no dividing line between the blue sea and blue sky and it looks like the mouth of God. And seven years later, it was just the way I remembered it.
This is essentially the story of three Japanese schoolgirls who go missing in Taroko Gorge on a class trip to Taiwan, and the aftermath and consequences of their disappearance. It’s told from multiple viewpoints – the American journalist who was one of the last people to see the girls alive, a female student, and the Class Rep, both of them friends of the missing girls, and the Taiwanese detective sent out to investigate. I usually enjoy multiple narrators and in this case Ritari did a great job giving each character their own distinct, identifiable voice. The different perspectives also allow us to discover more about the personal histories and motivations of the different characters, resulting in a richer tale.
Tohru: I felt so lucky when I got the seat next to her on the bus. It was like a sign. But then I was so busy worrying about everyone else that I never actually got to talk to her. And when we did talk, it was just about the class - about how we were all friends, and we'd gotten so close, but in a couple of weeks we'd be saying goodbye, and that made us both sad. But Kari said something I remember: "Two people who've ever met can't really be apart."
On the surface it is a mystery, but it’s much more than that too. It’s a character study. It’s a philosophical discussion of fate and whether we have control over our own lives. It’s about the human need for companionship and compassion. It’s about cultural identity. It’s about hidden truths, and regret. It's about how a chance encounter can change a person’s life. It’s about human nature and the desire to find meaning in the world around us.
Peter: “A few rangers already combed the place around where they were last seen. They found three pairs of shoes and socks folded up inside the shoes. That’s it. Tom, they probably just fell down a hole. This place is a sheet of granite sitting right on the water table. There are holes that go down a hundred feet into the water”
“You don’t sound entirely convinced, that’s all,” he said with his godddamned Jesuit complacency.
“It’s like that Occam’s razor,” I said.
The principle of Occam’s razor is generally interpreted as ‘the simplest explanation is usually the right one’ and is what the author recently mentioned on Twitter as being “the crux of the book.”  The characters, however, can’t help imagining all the worst things that could have happened to the girls, and this in turn causes them to doubt, and in some cases, to turn on each other. And it is this emotionally-charged, sometimes volatile, situation that keeps you turning the pages to find out just what really did happen. And since I literally couldn’t put it down, it ended up being a very fast read.

Overall, it was a well-written, compelling debut novel. I look forward to seeing what Jacob Ritari comes out with next.

My Rating:  4/5

For more information, check out Jacob Ritari's website, or visit the Taroko Gorge page at Unbridled Books.

Buy Taroko Gorge at: | BookDepository

Thank you to Unbridled Books and Netgalley for the opportunity to read this book.

Also reviewed by:
Beth Fish Reads
The Book Lady's Blog
If I've missed yours, let me know and I'll link to it here.

The small print:  This eBook was received free of charge from the publisher, via Netgalley, for review purposes. Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission.  For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. Good to know you enjoyed this story. I'm checking my library for it now.
    I just finished The Ghost Brush by Canadian Catherine Govier. A wonderful historical fiction about Hokusai's daughter, who worked on her father's painting. Also just read Hotel Iris by Ogawa. I liked The Houesekeeper and the Professor better but it was well written.

  2. I actually ooohed while reading this review; like in that ooh-aah way when one watches fireworks. This sounds fantastic, and I love the cover (not that I'm one of those people who buys books based on covers...). Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. A layered mystery about cultural identity and philosophy? Want! Thank you for bringing this to my attention :)

  4. I have been keeping my eyes out for reviews of this book and yours is the first one that I have seen. Thanks for confirming my thought that it would be good. I don't read a lot of mysteries but I love character studies. I think I would like this book.


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