In Rituals of the Dead by Jennifer S. Alderson, Zelda Richardson is doing an internship at the Tropenmuseum in Netherlands, where researchers have discovered bones and other artifacts sent to Netherlands by anthropologists from the Asmat region of Papua 50 years earlier. As the researchers open the last two boxes at a public press conference, they pull out two bis poles, Asmat versions of Native American totem poles. But in one of the boxes, they discover the journal from Nick Mayfield, the American son of a millionaire mogul who disappeared during an expedition 50 years earlier. Zelda is given the tiresome chore of photographing the delicate book and is relieved to have finished a day before her deadline. But then the department photographer finds that she can’t log into the computer system or use the phones. Janna sends Zelda to the IT department, where Zelda finds all the employees frantically trying to fight off a cyber attack that has infiltrated their entire system. When she returns to the photography department, Zelda is shocked to discover Janna brutally murdered, with the journal and all her equipment stolen.
The book switches back and forth between the activities of Nick in 1962 Papua and those of Zelda in 2017 Netherlands. This proves to be an effective narrative technique, as we see retrospectives of Nick from both his lifetime and through Zelda’s eyes as she researches his life amid her own work preparing for the exhibition into bis poles. This method of narrative works all the more compellingly to drawn us more deeply into the mystery.
The plot of this book gripped me and kept me from pausing the recording. I thoroughly loved Alderson’s previous book, The Lover’s Portrait, but the premise of Rituals of the Dead made me unsure if it would be too creepy for me. However, I need not have feared. Yes, there are a couple descriptions of bones that are not wholly pleasant, but they are so crucial to the plot that I didn’t mind much, and the scenes are treated tastefully.
This book exposes the dark underbelly of the field of anthropology, especially the practices used in the earliest days. Westerners like Nick and other anthropologists and missionaries would offer trades of axes or tobacco for ritual items deemed sacred to the native Asmats. They took advantage of the native people in using unscrupulous means of gaining their artifacts. Physical anthropologists also collected the bones of natives in order to measure them in the now-debunked belief that measurements of bones, in particular those of skulls, reveal facts about the mental capacities of people. This method of research held a purpose of proving Western superiority. In doing so, they did not treat the bones that they often stole with the respect and care that such bones deserved. This makes us wonder what beliefs and research practices we hold and use today may seem barbaric and ridiculous to scholars 50 years from now.
Chelsea Stephens performs the audio edition of Rituals of the Dead. Unlike most cozy mysteries, this book contains mostly narrative and little dialogue. Thus, the performance requires a different approach to narrating the book. Instead of being dramatic, the performance uses a more evenhanded reading, leaving the text to speak for itself. I felt this was a smart decision, making the book seem all the more effective.
I was very pleasantly surprised by Rituals of the Dead. As a student of anthropology, I heard about some of the unethical and unscientific practices of certain early pioneers in the field, but this book brought these practices to life in a powerful way. This book was so compelling that I don’t think I could have put it down even if I wanted. I heartily endorse this book and give it five stars.
Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the author, but that in no way affected the content of my review.
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