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The Trade Mission

by Andrew Pyper

In November 1936, the man who would later be known as George Orwell published an article in the New English Weekly. The subject was the “disgusting tripe written by blurb reviewers” and Orwell went on to note that “novels are being shot at you at the rate of 15 a day. And every one of them an unforgettable masterpiece which you imperil your soul by missing.”

Sixty-six years later the book world’s blurb problem has not abated. Unfortunately for Andrew Pyper, on the back of his second novel, The Trade Mission, an eager blurbist has described the book as a work that “takes psychological suspense to an almost unbearable new level.” It’s hard to imagine what this almost unbearable new level might look like. Summer readers white-faced and knotted in their hammocks? Bedtime readers cowering under duvets?

Instead of piling any more hyperbole on The Trade Mission, it’s important to soberly note that the book does not provide the nerve-jangling, thoracic-shredding experience promised. The Trade Mission is fine. It’s good. In sections Pyper even matches the dry, horrifying tone of his first novel, Lost Girls, where he conjured up a world so cold and realistic, so northern Ontario, that everything that unfolded felt real.

In his latest, two twentysomething tech whiz kids named Marcus Wallace and Jonathon Bates accompany a Canadian trade mission to Brazil to showcase their billion-dollar idea. Their idea is a web site called Hypothesys that acts as a “morality machine,” a sort of Google for ethical solutions. You type in your problem. It helps you make the best decision of your life. This must be the 1990s because cash is effortlessly flowing toward the charismatic Wallace and introverted Bates. The translator they’ve brought along on the trip from Canada, a woman named Crossman, has “been kept busy all week translating ‘buzz’ into Portuguese – expectiva! – every few minutes.”

It’s rare in fiction that a character type ages so quickly. The fresh-faced, millionaire Internet entrepreneur is already a relic from another time – the chimney sweep of the 1990s. Pyper recognizes the absurdity of this past era when big business was run by boys. His duo are gifted, but more importantly they share a fraternal bond that’s eerie in its depth. The opening scene shows a younger Wallace and Bates stranded in the fierce Ontario winter, forced to keep alive by holding each other tight. It’s a tender and unexpected start. Pyper introduces an extraordinary friendship so he can test it when everything goes wrong in Brazil.

Which doesn’t take long. While on an eco-tour up the Rio Negro, the Hypothesys team is taken hostage by a band of anonymous assailants. With the exception of their translator, each is tortured in a particularly unsavoury way. Why isn’t Crossman, who narrates the novel, included in the pain? As the story moves on, Pyper draws suspense from what Crossman chooses or refuses to tell.

Like any good translator, she has a talent for knowing what to omit and what to make up. There are even a few points when she jumps to an omniscient view. How does Crossman know what the others are thinking? She doesn’t, she admits, but Pyper allows her to see and report on their thoughts regardless, because a translator’s task, after all, “is to take what can be understood and, when necessary, fill in whatever’s missing.” It’s an effective literary tool, and Pyper uses his narrator’s skewed perception to his advantage throughout.

The language of The Trade Mission is best described as quick. Pyper’s sentences are terse and include plenty of fragments that give the book an enforced urgency, especially during the grislier scenes. No detail is spared. Often, body parts are compared to food, so when brain matter spills, it’s in “custardy blues and yellows.” “Two pierced egg yolks” is the description given to a pair of buttocks hacked by a machete. Pyper is just as deft at depicting his lead characters in a series of quick, intelligent details. (And they sound like real Canadians, too. When a dying man requests a final cigarette, Crossman thinks to herself: “That’s not good for you.”)

The Trade Mission may be lacking in the type of suspense that brings readers to the brink of insanity, their nails bitten to the quick, their hair askew, but it does deserve modest praise. Pyper puts together an effective, entertaining narrative, and he keeps the story engaging to its very end. Perhaps a blurb like this is appropriate: “The Trade Mission is not the kind of thriller you’ll leave behind on the seat when your flight lands.” It’s good, but not unbearably so.