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Onyx reviews: The
Queen of the South by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
There have been many rags-to-riches tales, but few are like The Queen of the
South, in which Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte explores the enigmatic life
of Teresa Mendoza, born in the lawless, impoverished Sinaloa region of
northwestern Mexico. Here, narcos—drug smugglers—rule the local economy and a
person's greatest aspiration is to have a corrida—a ballad recounting some
famous exploit—written about him. Preferably while he's still alive. "The
cemeteries of northwest Mexico are full of the graves of people somebody
When the book opens, Teresa receives the phone call she's always dreaded, the
one that means her longtime lover, drug runner Güero Dávila is dead. Though
she knows nothing of his business and poses no threat to Güero's enemies,
tradition dictates that she must be killed as a show of strength and as a
warning to others. She throws her life at the feet of a powerful man, who
spirits her from the country.
The novel is told from a split perspective: the chronological third person
account of her life, and the first person narrative of an unnamed journalist
researching it. From the onset, this narrator makes it clear that Teresa will
become famous—or infamous—but he is stingy with details. He travels across the
Mediterranean to interview people who knew her or knew of her to gain insight
into how she became known as the Queen of the South.
Teresa flees to Europe and hides out in Andalusia, a Spanish enclave in Morocco
near Gibraltar. While working at a bar, she meets another drug runner, Santiago
Fisterrá. Whereas Güero was an expert pilot, the "king of the short
landing," Santiago plies his trade with speedboats, playing a dangerous
game of cat and mouse with the Guardia Civil and several other authorities.
The narrator mentions The Count of Monte Cristo in the novel's opening line, and
this isn't just a passing reference. The Queen of the South is illuminated by
Dumas' novel, which Teresa reads during a brief stint in prison. She identifies
with Edmond Dantès, who lost everything while falsely imprisoned, and who is
handed the means to avenge himself once he is free. Her cellmate and protector
while in prison, Patricia, gave her the book, the first of many Teresa will
devour once the world of literature has been opened to her.
Like Abbé Faria, Patty has a treasure trove awaiting her on the outside: a
stash of stolen drugs. Teresa and Patty sell the drugs and use the cash to
establish an empire that facilitates drug smuggling transactions all across the
Mediterranean. Teresa keeps her distance from the drugs themselves, providing
her with a certain level of deniability. She's almost untouchable.
It's hard to imagine that a ruthless drug dealer would make a sympathetic
heroine, but Pérez-Reverte, a former journalist and war correspondent, pulls it
off, perhaps in part because his story is based on fact. His narrator meets up
with Teresa a dozen years after her arrival in Europe and he wants to know how
this once simple, unassuming, unremarkable, occasionally vulnerable woman became
"a legend: a woman thriving in a world of dangerous men."
So, too, do the book's readers. Her life is exciting, fraught with danger and
betrayal, but she uses her newfound power to right old wrongs committed against
her and, as the book comes to its astonishing conclusion, she discovers that
there were many more betrayals and deceptions in her early life than she ever
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