Book review: The Untameable by Guillermo Arriaga, translated by Frank Wynne and Jessie Mendez Sayer

A tale of revenge and redemption from the screenwriter of Amores Perros

It is 1960s Mexico City. The parents of Juan Guillermo and his older brother Carlos have struggled and sacrificed to give their sons an education and the opportunities they didn’t have. But in their community the pressures of crime, gangs and corruption are hard to avoid. When Carlos is murdered, events spiral out of control and Juan Guillermo struggles with guilt, loss and the desire for revenge.

Juan Guillermo is a wonderful character, thoughtful and impulsive, struggling to be loved and defiant in the face of conformity. He has the normal adolescent preoccupations – sport, music, sex. He has a close group of friends who live a secret life on the rooftops of their apartment blocks, away from adults and authority. He is in awe of Carlos, who has rejected his parents’ ambitions and is making money dealing drugs.

He is also haunted by the circumstances of his birth – which led to the death of his twin – sensitive to slights and injustice, and constrained by the cruelty and chilling effect of both church and state, personified by a corrupt local police commander and the Good Boys, a group of religiously inspired teenage vigilantes. The death of Carlos pits him against all these forces, and means he has to confront uncomfortable truths about his adored older brother.

The Untameable has so many wonderful elements. It’s atmospheric and beautifully written. The characters are nuanced and interesting. It’s also about 200 pages too long.

This is particularly true in the middle section of the book. Juan Guillermo’s narration weaves between two main timelines, digressions, reminiscences and asides, and vignettes featuring various secondary characters.

That’s before the introduction of the second strand to the story, which begins with Amaruq, a young Inuit man trailing a wolf across the tundra in Canada. I enjoyed this very different story, and the way the two eventually intersect, but at times it almost got lost in the noise.

The Untameable circles themes of revenge and redemption, trauma and healing, oppression and liberation. While it deals in violence and brutality, it doesn’t celebrate them. The end felt, perhaps, a little too neatly uplifting, given all that had gone before, but still, it’s a complex and original literary thriller.

I received a copy of The Untameable from the publisher via NetGalley.
View The Untameable on Goodreads

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