I have recommended Michael Robotham’s books to many people…so I was happy to have a new Robotham book to read/review. In his latest, the protagonist is London-based Detective Alisha Barba (who appeared as a minor character in Lost, published in 2005). As the story begins, Alisha is recovering from a terrible injury sustained at work. She is such an interesting character: A Sikh with low self-esteem, she has lost contact with her BFF Cate, who asks her in an urgent note to please attend their upcoming school reunion.
Despite feeling low and having an overall less than lofty self-image, Alisha decides to attend the reunion, a concept she isn’t totally wild about: “That’s the thing about school reunions – people only come to measure their life against others and to see the failures. They want to know which of the beauty queens has put on seventy pounds and seen her husband run off with his secretary; and which teacher got caught taking photographs in the changing rooms.” (I LOVED this, as I was reading the book while on a trip to Southern California for a high school class reunion!)
We quickly realize that Alisha’s background and family have a huge impact on her career and relationships: at work, “Everything else paled into insignificance alongside my skin colour and Sikh heritage.” She knows “all families have baggage but mine belongs in one of those battered suitcases, held together with string, that you see circling endlessly on a luggage carousel. “
Alisha is tiptoeing around her relationship, but hesitant to dive in full bore for fear she will ruin a good thing: ” I have no experience of love. Ever since adolescence I have avoided it, renounced it, longed for it. (Such a dichotomy is one of they symptoms.) I have been an agony aunt for all my girlfriends, listening to their sob stories about arranged marriages, unfaithful husbands, men who won’t call or commit, missed periods, sexual neuroses, wedding plans, post-natal depression and failed diets. I know all about other people’s love affairs but I am a complete novice wen it comes to my own. That’s why I’m scared, I’m sure to mess it up.”
Robotham does a great job getting into the head of female characters, as in this scene between Alisha and her boyfriend: “Propped on one elbow, I study him. His hair is soft and rumpled like a tabby cat, with tiny flecks of blond amid the ginger. He has a big head. Does that mean he would father big babies, with big heads. Unconsciously I squeeze my thighs together.” Later, her ambivalence about motherhood is evidenced by her comment “I’m not good at describing newborn babies. They all look like Winston Churchill. “
While Alisha continues to dance around the relationship with her boyfriend, her mother is somewhat determined to push her toward a traditional arranged Sikh marriage: “My mother says the truth is unimportant when it comes to love. An arranged marriage is all about the fictions that one family tells another. Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps falling in love is about inventing a story and accepting the truth of it.”
As she arrives at the reunion, Alisha finds Cate but, before they can have an in-depth conversation, what seems initially to be a tragic accident leaves an apparently pregnant Cate dead – but it turns out she is faking her pregnancy, and her comments to Alisha right after the accident suggest foul play. The plot weaves its way through London, the U.K. and Amsterdam, and involves human trafficking, babies for sale, and desperate migrants (which resonates with the current refugee problems in Europe).
The character of Cate is a bit puzzling, but her personality leaps off the page as Robotham reveals that Alisha thinks Cate “treated love and friendship like a small creature trapped in a blizzard, fighting for survival. “ Alisha and a sort-of-retired detective named Ruiz (protagonist in Robotham’s Lost, where we were first introduced to Alisha) go to Amsterdam in search of answers, and Robotham’s skill at setting a scene is on full display: …” red-light district is different at night. I can almost smell the testosterone and used condoms. “ Ruiz is skilled at working with people (particularly Alisha), not always in alignment with the Metro Police’s official rules, as seen when he talks another cop into skirting some of those rules, telling the other cop: “You’re a credit to the Met. You’re not frightened to have an opinion or act on a hunch.” Alisha marvels at his skill, noting, “It’s like watching a fisherman casting a fly.”
The revelation about Alisha’s insecurity and possible overcompensation due to feeling devalued as a detective (perhaps due to her Sikh heritage) is skillfully done, and aligns with her overall self-image. For example, she notes she has “…faced off suspects, pursued cars, charged through doorways and walked into abandoned building but have never thought that I might die. Maybe that’s one of the advantages of having little self-value.”
Along the way, we learn more about Alisha, and there are some terrific revelations about her character: “Regret is such an odd emotion because it invariable comes a moment too late, when only imagination can rewrite what has happened. My regrets are like pressed flowers in the pages of a diary. Brittle reminders of summers past; like the last summer before graduation, the one that wasn’t big enough to hold its own history.”
What really set this book apart for me, in addition to Alisha’s unique character, are the geopolitical messages that are integral to the story. For example, Alisha notes that “We in the West like to think it can be different; that we can change these countries and these people because it makes us feel better when we tuck our own children into their warm beds with full stomachs and then pour ourselves a glass of wine and watch someone else’s tragedy unfold on CNN.”
One of the refugees they encounter, a young woman named Zala, is described: “The smudges beneath her eyes are signs of the premature or the beaten-down.” Another young female refugee, telling of the life in Afghanistan that had prompted them to flee, notes ” … Americans dropped leaflets from the sky saying they were coming to liberate us but there was nothing left to free us from. Still we cheered because the Talibs were gone, running like frightened dogs. But the Northern Alliance was not so different. We had learned not to expect too much. In Afghanistan we sleep with the thorns and not the flowers.”
A man named Hokke is part of the action in the Amsterdam. When talking to Alisha and Ruiz about issues related to the hidden refugee population they are desperately working to help as they search for the link to Cate’s situation, he tells them the scope of their challenge: “There are half a million illegal workers in the Netherlands – Iranians, Sudanese, Afghans, Bosnians, Kosovars, Iraqis. They work in restaurants, hotels, laundries and factories. Newspapers wouldn’t be delivered without them, hotel sheets wouldn’t be laundered, houses wouldn’t be cleaned. People complain, but we cannot do without them.”
Robotham is skilled at writing complex plots with characters that become real. Although it is difficult to write about this particular story without spoiling the mystery, suffice it to say that it is a terrific read, with messages that are relevant to current world events. Michael Robotham is one of my new favorite authors…and I am grateful to have been provided a copy of The Night Ferry by NetGalley in exchange for my review (apparently a re-release as it was published originally in 2007, according to Amazon).