Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Missing in Machu Picchu by Cecilia Velastegui

High in the Andes Mountains on the legendary Inca Trail, four thirty-something professional women embark on an Ivy League hike to help them confront their online dating dependency––only to find themselves victims to a predator’s ruse, and soon in a fight for their very lives. The women are eager to leave relationships behind for a while, but their intent to cast off their search for a soul mate falls by the side of the trail when handsome, magnetic Rodrigo, their hike leader, proves too mesmerizing to resist. One by one the women fall for his charms, and friend is pitted against friend as each woman brazenly vies for Rodrigo’s attentions.

Thoroughly under his sway, Rodrigo manipulates the women into participating in a heinous ancient sacrifice that will guarantee the success of his megalomaniac dreams. But unbeknownst to the hikers, they have been under the vigilant presence of Taki and Koyam, two elderly indigenous women who understand the danger the women are facing at the hands of Rodrigo. By following the wisdom of their mummified Andean ancestor, Taki and Koyam work to save the women and act with spine-tingling resolve against the sinister forces of Rodrigo and his minions.
 Amazon Description

When I was approached by the publishers about reviewing this book, I was surprised to discover that I had overlooked it on Netgalley. But having looked at the cover I could see why: it didn't look like a magic realism book and the plot summary didn't make it seem like it was magic realism either. It looked like a chick-lit book, which is not my personal choice of reading matter. But having read Missing in Machu Picchu I can now say that a) it is magic realist fiction and b) it is not chick-lit, or at least not just chick-lit. It is in fact very hard to place this book neatly in any genre. I see that is listed under mystery/thriller in Netgalley, and the group of women travellers at the centre of the book are certainly in great danger from the psychopathic Rodrigo, but there is more to this book that that.
As for the magic realism this rests with my two favourite characters, Taki and Koyam, old indigenous women who uphold the old traditions in the face of the modern ideas of their children. Cecilia Velastegui was born high in the Andes Mountains and has a personal understanding of the ancient beliefs in the spirits of the ancestors which dictate the old women's actions. Even after she moved to California as a child she feared the wrath of the soul of great-great-great grandmother if she failed in her exams.
One of the fascinating aspects of the book is the clash between the commercial exploitation of the Inca customs, artifacts and remains and the beliefs of the descendants of the Incas and that exploitation continues to this day as Koyam notes These foreigners are tricky. You invite them to your house and pretty soon you're the one sleeping outside. And as the writer makes clear, this exploitation goes back to the "discovery" of Machu Picchu by American Hiram Bingham. Exploitation of the indigenous people sits in the background to the book. Rodrigo is involved in the human trafficking and the writer donates a proportion of the income from the book to tackling this terrible crime.

As you will have gathered by now, I soon got past my initial worries about the story of four online dating addicts going on a trek to find true love and my lack of empathy for them and found much more to enjoy in this book. I had some problems with the dialogue, which at times jarred and nowhere more so than when the author was using it to inform us about the local traditions: "You know" Taki explained "in the olden days, in Camay, what is now our month of January, the boys..." But these were minor and I soon found myself swept along by the story.

Overall this is a good example of magic realism being used in popular fiction. I admire the way the author has integrated it into a book which will appeal to many readers who are unfamiliar with the genre. I admire also her ability and willingness to tackle important issues in a way that is accessible and enjoyable. Missing in Machu Picchu has already won The International Latino Book Award and is featured in the Huffington Post's recommended summer reads. Let's hope that it is to be found in many a beach bag over the next few months. 

The book is currently available to download as a free e-book from all online booksellers from June 25th - 7th July.

I was given this copy by the publisher in return for a fair review.

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