Open Pit by Marguérite Pigeon
July 18, 2013 § 2 Comments
NeWest Press sent me a review copy of this book a few months ago and I was immediately taken by the cover, designed by the fabulously talented Natalie Olsen. Open Pit is the story of a group of activists from Canada who have travelled to El Salvador. They are kidnapped and held hostage by a man who wants NorthOre, a company about to start excavating a gold mine, to halt all work. One of the hostages, Danielle, is something of a veteran of dramatic situations like this, having been a journalist there during the civil war twenty years before.
As this story takes its course, following the hostages and kidnappers as they try to keep moving and out of sight, several other threads run alongside. There’s Mitch Wall, NorthOre’s CEO (whom Pigeon is careful not to paint as a monster, revealing tender glimpses of his wife and children even as she shows his intractable, rigid profit-driven side) is doing everything he can to not give in to the hostages. There’s Aida, Danielle’s daughter back in Toronto, who opens the book reading the letters her mother wrote during the civil war and learning a great deal of information she did not know about both her mother and herself. There’s the hostage-takers’ own secrets and hidden stories, and finally there’s Carlos, an elusive, slippery character who could be playing more than one side at once.
Aida travels to El Salvador with the families of the other hostages, and much of the novel is about the tensions and the secrets between the various groups, even the ones that are supposed to be working together. Open Pit contains brutality, violence, destruction of trust and seeming collaboration, all painted in many more shades of grey than a typical political novel. When personal goals do not fully match political goals, things get murky, and motivation and dramatic irony muddy the waters further.
Open Pit is blurbed as a “gripping political thriller [and] genre-busting literary work,” but this isn’t quite accurate. It is more like a cross between a political thriller and an investigative essay—not boring, but not wholly compelling in a novelistic sense either. I don’t need characters to be likeable or even realistic, but they must be three-dimensional in some way, whether this means fully rounded in a literary realist sense, or plausible in their detailed absurdity, attached at all four corners (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf), however lightly, to life. In Open Pit the characters say and do the right things, but somehow do not have a firm attachment to life, which means that death, tragedy and the revelation of interpersonal secrets all lose their power. This is a shame, because the research, knowledge and plot are all sound. Pigeon did in fact spend some time in south America, and deeply understands, intellectually and emotionally, the subjects she is writing about, but Open Pit never quite becomes the absorbing page-turner of a thriller I was hoping for.
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