Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Del Rey, ebook, £4.99
Review by Lottie Lightfoot
I picked up this book in the early evening and did not put it down until I had finished it in its entirety in the small hours of the following morning. I consider myself an avid reader, but even completing a novel in one sitting is something that doesn’t happen very often. It is a tense and atmospheric novel that has a slow start but builds up to a thundering crescendo, making it hard to put down once you’ve already begun.
Mexico City socialite, Noemí Taboada, is sent to the countryside after her newly wed cousin writes to her family, describing unseen forces and begging for her cousin to come to her aid. Her cousin lives at High Place, an isolated and dilapidated mansion full of mildew and mold, with Englishman Virgil Doyle, her husband, and his family. She finds her beloved cousin, Catalina, as an archetypal gothic heroine, suffering from tuberculosis, prone to frequent fits, and begging for Noemí to procure her a tincture from the healer in the local town. The Doyles themselves are reprehensible and archaic. They disapprove of Noemí’s smoking. Going into town is forbidden, as is talking during meal times. When they do talk at meal times, it is only for Virgil to appraise eugenics, whilst shooting racist, backhanded compliments at Noemí.
The book is exactly as it is as it says on the tin – a gothic. In addition to Catalina’s portrayal, the book has old, forgotten mansions, nightmares and sleepwalking, eroticism, superstitions, and many other identifiable tropes. But Mexican Gothic breathes transcends the genre whilst also paying it its dues – it combines gothic, romance, sci-fi, and horror into one seamless work.
Noemí must figure out what exactly ails her cousin, and also try to break her free from High Place in search of medical treatment. As her time at High Place goes on, Noemí realises that her cousin’s situation is far more complicated than she had previously described, and Noemí spends her nights having grim dreams and bouts of sleepwalking, an ever present feeling of dread creeping up as she realises the Doyles might be worse than they already seem.
Noemí, far more suited to parties and the upper echelons of Mexican society than fighting the forces of evil, is a welcome heroine and a breath of fresh air. Her vibrancy is directly pitted and contrasted against the dullness and restrictiveness of the Doyles. She is vain, headstrong, and often puts her foot in it, but she’s also whip smart and brave – which is exactly what makes her so likeable. And it’s not just our hero who is wonderfully crafted – the attention to detail is spread out to all characters in the novel, each of whom have colourful backgrounds and go through their own character development, leaving us with a believable and well thought out tale.
The book confronts issues of racism, sexism, and eugenics head-on, with the book doubling as a biting social commentary. It is, after all, set in the 1950s. Noemí finds herself at odds with the Doyle family as she tries to break her cousin out of High Place. Catalina is Virgil Doyle’s wife, and technically his property, which he is quick to point out, leaving Noemí with very little say in the house or about her cousin’s situation or condition. The feeling of helplessness is a common theme.
The book is unnerving and downright distressing in some parts. It is not gory, by any stretch, but it imbibes fear and disgust so well that it makes for uncomfortable reading. It was perhaps the feeling of desperation and despair that had been done so well which was the culprit when it came to me not wanting to put it down. If there’s one thing you ought to do this summer, it is add this gem to your reading list.