Death and the Maidens

Sunday Times, 2 January 2010

Ciudad Juarez is the border city in Mexico where hundreds, possibly thousands, of young women have been abducted and murdered in recent years. Most of the victims have been students or factory workers, and the corpses show signs of torture and sexual violence. There has been an international outcry about the failure of the Mexican authorities to protect women or bring the perpetrators to justice, but the killings continue.

Sam Hawken is an American historian, originally from Texas, and he has chosen Juarez as the setting for his first novel. Paloma is a young woman who works with a group called Mujeres Sin Voces (Women Without Voices), a fictional organisation based on two real organisations in Juarez which campaign for justice for the victims. One of the most vivid images in Hawken’s book is a telegraph pole covered in fluttering photos of missing women, with new images added every few days.

Juarez is a city dominated by drugs cartels and Paloma’s boyfriend, a washed-up American boxer called Kelly Courter, is involved in the drugs trade at a low level; her brother Esteban deals in dope and Kelly helps him sell it to American tourists who’ve made the border crossing from El Paso. Kelly is a stock character, an ex-junkie on the run from the American police, but the situation in which he finds himself – the real-life murders of women on such an industrial scale have been termed a ‘feminicide’ – are highly unusual.

When Paloma disappears, Kelly is in a heroin-induced stupor. He surfaces to find himself one of the chief suspects, along with Esteban, and the two men soon experience the pitiless brutality of a Mexican prison; Hawken’s novel is graphically violent and not for squeamish readers. A world-weary cop, Sevilla, launches an unofficial investigation into Paloma’s abduction, and inevitably finds himself confronting drugs bosses and corrupt cops.

Hawken conveys the desperate atmosphere of Juarez, but it’s a pity that all his significant characters are male in a city where women are denied voices. That doesn’t stop the novel being both a tense, gripping read and a plea for justice. It deserves to be read on both counts.

The Dead Women of Juarez is published by Seprent’s Tail, £10.99

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