La Frontera by Sam Hawken

Review published on March 30, 2018.

Every time I read one of Hawken’s novels I enjoy it immensely; he is a consummate storyteller with a real knack for getting to the heart of the matter. La Frontera is a powerful novel because is deals with the lives of real people in tough situations. That has been a feature of Hawken’s writing since his first novel, The Dead Women of Juarez, a blistering thriller based on the murders of 1500 women in Ciudad Juarez during the drugs wars on the border. This was an important novel but Hawken has gone on to write much better thrillers (from a stylistic point of view). I don’t think anybody writes about La Frontera with the same depth of knowledge of the borderlands (north and south). Hawken is a Texan, and he brings the many stories of real people to life with compassion and honesty. In this case it is Ana, Luis and Marisol. That depth of characterisation sets his novels apart from a lot of thrillers and it’s totally engrossing. The people we meet on these pages are nuanced and complicated. Hawken seems to be able to make ordinary detail seem fascinating and once he introduces a character you will want to know their story. Most importantly Hawken knows how to tell a story with verve and depth; La Frontera is fast paced, absorbing and exciting – it is one of his best and that is saying something.

Ana Torres is a Texas Ranger, she rides the ranch land on the broader looking for signs of illegal crossings. She works alone in Presidio County, a few hundred miles from El Paso. She sees a tree with a bright yellow flash on one of the branches and starts towards it. Other colours become apparent, she knows what she will find and her heart sinks, yours will too. A little way off she also finds the body of a man, face down, three bullets in the back. Maybe a coyote (people trafficker) or a drugs mule? In any case, it looks like he was killed by the people with him, now long gone. Her investigation with the Customs and Border Patrol and the Sheriff’s Office does’t seem to be getting anywhere but when the matter is reported to the Mexican authorities they want more.

Luis Gonzalez is known as ‘Dog Man’, he owns lots of dogs and runs a small shop that just about ticks over in Ojinaga, a town of 20,000 people and 400 soldiers, just south of La Frontera. People come into his shop and he equips them for the trip north. Luis used to be a coyote and Angel and Francisco Rojas are trying to talk him into coming back. That means getting mixed up with Los Zetas again and now he is out Luis doesn’t want back in. He has other things to think of now, there is Adriana, a woman he has fallen in love with and her young daughter. But, Angel Rojas doesn’t want to take no for an answer.

Marisol comes from El Salvador, she is 28 and she has been saving all her working life to leave for America. She sells her parents’ house and begins the journey, eventually arriving in Mexico, just south of the border. Together with a friend she is looking for a coyote to take her over La Frontera.

The story has a beautiful structure that it’s best you find for yourself, similarly how the stories of these people coalesce is something you should read rather than get from me but it will not disappoint. You will learn something along the way, some of it will make your heart sink, but mostly you will be entertained in fine style.

Paul Burke 5/4

La Frontera by Sam Hawken
Betimes Books 9780992655228 pbk Dec 2013

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