Review

Ritual

by Mo Hayder

The first page of RITUAL describes a crater that surrounds a
pool of water. This sinkhole is so cold that only a few canefish
manage to survive there. Anyone who comes upon it by chance or
design will find it to be unusually still, and if they choose to
take a dip, they’ll discover too late that there is no way to
climb out of this bottomless pit. This anomalous body of water,
located in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert, has quite a
reputation among a certain segment of the world’s population;
divers see it as one of the ultimate cave formations to conquer.
“This is Bushman’s Hole. This is Boesmansgat [and] to
the Kalahari people, This is the path to hell.”

Chapter One begins in Bristol’s floating harbor, where
29-year-old Sergeant Phoebe “Flea” Marley is nine feet
under silt-filled black water, handling a disarticulated human hand
that she cannot actually see. Her partner, PC Rich Dundas, keeps
track of her from above, and she hears him speak to her through her
earpiece. He knows about the hand and is anxious for her to
surface. But she decides to stay where she is a while longer
because she thinks she senses a “presence” but could
neither hear nor see anything.

When she surfaces and is getting dressed, she begins to examine
her toes and is frightened by the webbing that is growing between
them. So far this is her secret. When Dundas calls her name, she
quickly puts on socks and turns to find DI Jack Caffery, Deputy
SIO. He’s just been transferred to this part of the country,
and while very experienced, he has a lot to learn about this place.
Unfortunately, he was under the misconception that the hand was the
result of a suicide, but it’s not. It’s been sawed off,
which means…murder.

Then the second hand is found under the restaurant on the dock,
owned by Mr. Mdebele, an African émigré who is very
familiar with the sacrifices imposed by the occult practices of
muti (witchcraft medicine). As it happens, hands are an
integral part of ritualistic mutilation of live victims. Was
someone trying to bring luck to Mdebele’s restaurant
business, or were they setting him up as the perpetrator of the
barbarism?

The hands remind the cops that a few years ago the torso of a
very young male was found in London waters. The authorities named
him “Adam” but never did find out who he was, nor did
they ever discover who butchered him. They had no way of knowing at
the time if he was the victim of a demented sadist or if someone
who was practicing African muti had captured him. However,
over time the strange disappearances of young boys coupled with
twisted rumors about strange doings flooded Bristol. Those in the
know kept a keen eye on events that could be the result of the
practice of African black magic, or worse.

When Mdebele is vetted, the investigators learn that he is
involved in the rampant drug underground in Bristol. But does he
practice or know who is involved with muti, and will he
help the authorities?

Some of the other major characters who populate RITUAL include
Mossy, a drug addict who wants to get clean, and to pay for the
treatment he agrees to become part of a ghoulish business that
deals in human blood and other pieces of the body; his
“friend” Skinny, a bottom feeder who traffics in human
body parts and has a deformed brother who looks like a baboon; The
Walking Man, an ex-con living free in the woods surrounding
Bristol, a strange individual who Caffery is drawn to; and
Flea’s brother, a young man who cannot accept the death of
his parents in a diving accident at Bushman’s Hole.

RITUAL is a bold, provocative and chilling book. The superbly
researched material that is the landscape against which Hayder has
woven this most fascinating novel will open lines of thought that
readers may not have ever considered. The juxtaposition of Bristol,
a small English town, against the mysterious Kalahari Desert is
blinding in its opposition to each other. Her plot points also
shine a light upon the way Africans live in England. What Hayder
has done is override the media coverage of this problem, especially
exposing the cultural blocks based in ancient religious practices
such as witchcraft, torture and arcane beliefs. But can it be that
those who are mutilating and killing young boys are really using
those acts as a blind to cover more horrendous activities?

RITUAL does not read like a textbook. Quite the opposite! Mo
Hayder manages to craft a plot rich in facts, each of her
characters has a backstory that places her/him perfectly posed, at
no time does the pace lag or become pedagogic, and the issues she
raises are timely and exist in every neighborhood in one form or
another. Overall the idea that things may not be as they seem is
the major theme of the book. Some readers may come away from the
novel considering it to be a cautionary tale. Others may see it as
an excursion into an underworld that is exposed with all of its
terrible facets.

Hayder shapes the problems and guilt her main characters suffer
(because of deaths they couldn’t stop) with empathy and
insight. She also makes a strong point of how Flea and Jack keep
everything bottled up, which makes life much harder. At the end,
readers get a hint that maybe they are reaching the point where
trust will allow them to talk to each other.

Fans and new readers will certainly find RITUAL a very worthy
book, standing tall in the fall lineup of notable novels. Hayder
has a reputation for being very detail-oriented, which makes her
books both gripping and sometimes scary. But she always reassures
her audience with her courage to face the ugly and “work it
out.” Those who are familiar with Hayder’s work will be
pleased to learn that RITUAL is the first in a series that will be
comprised of five books featuring The Walking Man.

Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 23, 2011

Ritual
by Mo Hayder

  • Publication Date: September 15, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
  • ISBN-10: 0871139928
  • ISBN-13: 9780871139924