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A Coming-of-age thriller set in Mexico and Canada (captivating and disturbing)

26th November 2020

The Untameable by Guillermo Arriaga, a captivating if disturbing coming-of-age thriller set in Mexico and Canada. Translated by Frank Wynne and Jessie Sayers Mendez.

Coming-of-age thriller set in Mexico and Canada

Set in the late-1960s, The Untameable opens with a series of short descriptive passages confronting the reader with the facts of young protagonist Juan Guillermo’s existence. He is a twin, but his brother was stillborn. He is the son of hardworking aspirational parents from the Unidad Modelo neighbourhood of Mexico City, parents devoted to sending both their sons, Juan and his older brother Carlos, to private school, hoping to raise them up out of poverty. Right from the get-go, the narrative is infused with a pervasive sense of doom as Juan and Carlos are ensnared in a web of hardship, ruthlessness and corruption. Carlos is cunning and resourceful. He avoids the murderous gangs and the corrupt police as he sets up two businesses, a chinchilla farm on the rooftop and drugs – morphine and LSD. Both are successful, much to the consternation of the Good Boys, a Catholic hit squad in collusion with the police. When Juan loses Carlos, and his parents and grandmother soon after, he is forced to fend for himself home alone. He is drowning in grief and brimming with rage at the delicate age of seventeen, an age when raw emotions run high.

The Untameable is a patchwork quilt of a book, especially to begin with, the story smoothing out into a linear narrative towards the end. The tale is artfully told in gripping thriller style, the narrative structure consisting of a series of sequenced storylines telling the one story, a screenwriting technique Arriaga deftly employs. Early on, the aftermath of Juan’s parents’ tragic deaths is sequenced alongside another storyline relating the build-up to the death of Carlos. Each sequence comprises entertaining vignettes of Juan’s escapades and scrapes, and those of his brother who he looks up to and admires with fierce devotion. Then there is Amaruq, part Inuit, part Scot, hunting a wolf in a Canadian winter. How are Amaruq and Juan connected? For a long time, the reader is left in the dark.

The portrayal of school life, friends, Carlos, the streets and rooftops of a downbeat suburb, the cops, the gangs of Mexico City, all are painted with a realistic brush. Also realistic the arduous and at times punishing trek through the frozen Canadian wilderness where the savagery of nature is portrayed in vivid detail. There were times in the reading I was persuaded there was a touch of memoir about this story, or at least deep insider knowledge, so observant and accurate are the fine details.

There are elements of the narrative that are genius in conception, including the portrayal of Carlos’s death set alongside the itinerary of that same day in his parent’s once-in-a-lifetime European holiday. Chapters are interspersed with short descriptions of various literary heroes and their gruesome or tragic deaths, along with poems, etymology and definitions, adding a satisfying literary dimension, offering many moments to pause and reflect before diving back into the story.

The juxtaposition of the two settings, one natural and wild, one urban and feral, ultimately provides the reader with a profound meditation on beast and man, on what is untameable and what, perhaps, is not. With its 700 pages, Arriaga has penned an epic tale of revenge and retribution. Unflinching, brutal, intense, vicious and innocent all at once, The Untameable is ultimately a story of redemption, of freedom from the shackles of grief and vengeance.

Guest review by author Isobel Blackthorn for the TripFiction Team

Isobel is a prolific Australian novelist. She writes both contemporary/literary, thrillers and dark fiction. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and via her website. 

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