Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic (2020)

Mexican Gothic

Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: Mexican Gothic

Format: E-book

Pages: 352

Series: –

The title says it all. A distinctly Gothic novel set in 20th century Mexico, complete with a sprawling, haunted house shrouded in mists, a feisty female protagonist thrown by fate into the middle of unknowable, and a terrible secret from the past. Sounds a bit like paint-by-numbers piece, but Moreno-Garcia deftly introduces elements of postmodern literary play into that sombre, creepy genre, freely mixing moods and plot threads, artfully twisting tropes and the rules of the game, all the while staying true to the spirit of the Gothic fiction. Blending body horror with social commentary regarding colonial past and gender roles in old and modern Mexico, Moreno-Garcia creates a unique story that will be perversely satisfying to fans of Hannibal Lecter and Brontë sisters alike.

Noemí Taboada lives her carefree life of a rich, spoiled socialite in mid-century Mexico City – until she receives a troubling message from her beloved older cousin, Catalina, who had recently – and hurriedly – married an English heir to a run-down mining estate and moved to her husband’s mansion in the mountains. Asked by her father to check on Catalina, whose missive seems both furtive and deeply disconcerting, Noemí embarks on a perilous journey. The High Place, Doyles’ family seat, is a remote, crumbling house, full of mould and ghosts of a wealthier past. Yet the estate, however repulsive at first sight, keeps much more horrifying secrets, which our protagonist will learn in time, together with us readers, whether she wants it or not.

I’m afraid I cannot say much more about Mexican Gothic’s plot for fear of spoiling any of the delightfully repulsive twists and secrets of the Doyle family. As befits any self-respecting representative of the body horror genre, from the newest Moreno-Garcia’s novel you can expect incest, cannibalism, instances of sharing bodily fluids (though I’m not sure if vomit too can be counted in that category), psychological and physical abuse, substance abuse, fascination with death, mutilation and eugenics, unsettling dreams… All’s there, and more – especially that Noemí, as an avid anthropologist in spe, adds a running commentary lifted from the books she has been reading for her studies. What is most striking, however, is that for all the highly disgusting content (which I’m usually not a fan of!) the novel possesses a stunningly poetic, phantasmagorical quality. The clever depictions of the house, the nearby cemetery, even the decrepit small town add a layer of elusive, slightly Romanticist whimsy, juxtaposing moody symbolism with realistic gore – to unpredictable, and laudably entertaining, results.

Lush and seductively decaying, cycling through the stages of biological life with a façade of ennui hiding a rush of unexpected frenzy, Mexican Gothic transports the reader into a strange world, at once familiar and uncanny. Moreno-Garcia evidently had a lot of fun writing this novel, parts of which read like a trip on hallucinogens (and even this is intentional, neatly tying into the plot), parts – like an old-school Gothic novel. The levels of violence and gore are substantial, though not over the board; what makes this novel truly addictive is the hypnotic, dream-like style of the narrative; the claustrophobic feeling of getting deeper and deeper into a maze of Freudian id, where human subconscious is nearly indistinguishable from the instinctual drive to proliferate, shared by all living beings.

Amanita

If I were to venture a criticism, it would be two-fold; firstly, this novel relies much more heavily on concept than characters. Except for Noemí, who is indeed quite believable in her modes of thought, behaviours and decisions, most of the remaining characters are two-dimensional. Of course, we see them all through Noemi’s eyes, who is self-absorbed at the best of times, and even more so when faced with the inexplicable and the inevitable. And yet, I would dearly like to learn more about Francis and Catalina, about doctor Camarillo and the village healer Marta, who seems to know more than she lets on; even about Virgil Doyle, who till the very end remains an enigmatic figure – if not simply a cardboard villain.

The second criticism is tied directly to the first; namely, after the wonderful, exquisitely creepy buildup the conclusion seems rushed and far too simple. Sure, there are subtle signs that all may not be completely over yet, but in general the resolution feels far too neat, evoking the paint-by-number mood of something precisely perfected and polished, but without the spark of mad delight characterizing the earlier parts of the novel.

That being said, I deeply enjoyed both narratives: the actual journey of Noemí Taboada into the High Place and out, and the underlaying discourse with Mexico’s recent colonial and paternalistic past. The latter is especially intriguing for its bold and entertaining take on various racial views, as well as the highly entertaining fantasy of revenge for the past transgressions, both on the land and the people. Greed and dominance, delusions of grandeur and superiority, nurture vs nature – all these themes are nicely interwoven in the narrative, playing an important yet ancillary role in the tragedy of the Doyles, in which Noemí serves as an unwilling catalyst.

Lastly, I am quite intrigued by fungi as a life form, equally separate from animals and plants, with their own secret lives; for those who share this fascination, or simply want to lay to rest certain fears awaken by Mexican Gothic, I can recommend a book by Robert Hofrichter, Das geheimnisvolle Leben der Pilze (unfortunately, I couldn’t find an English translation). So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I say that I loved how Moreno-Garcia used the dual nature of fungi in her Gothic horror. I do realize that even without Mexican Gothic’s disturbing imagery fungi put the fear of god into the majority of Anglo-Saxon descendants, who in my experience usually approve only of champignons and oyster mushrooms 😉 (and the reason for it is something I’d love to do more research on at some point!). Alas, for the majority of continental Europeans (I cannot say anything certain about other parts of the world, but it seems mushroom consumption plays important role for many societies) wild mushrooms hold special allure – and I’m not talking about the hallucinogenic type :P. The edible mushrooms are picked with care and consumed with relish and without any adverse effects – if one knows his mushrooms, that is, for there are plenty poisonous species. The knowledge associated with the various mushroom types often is passed from one generation to the next as a family tradition.

The complex symbolism of mushrooms in various cultures around the world is a proof that humanity has a long and convoluted history with them – and boy, am I glad that Moreno-Garcia brings them once again to the limelight! Mexican Gothic is like a red toadstool growing boldly by the forest road – pick it up if you dare, its pretty and potentially dangerous fruiting body only the outward manifestation of a secret, shadowed life proliferating below ground.

I have received a copy of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.

Score: 8/10

65 thoughts on “Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic (2020)

  1. I love your in depth feelings about mushrooms. I’m building a list of “mushroom and fungi” speculative fiction and I’m glad I can now add this book to that list!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! Yes, I’m amazed how mushrooms and fungi are different from our expectations and that you can have a single organism spanning several square kilometers, in constant communication with other beings – trees, insects, etc. And don’t let me start on those fungi that actually move! :D:D
      I’ll be very curious to see your list!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There is a brilliant, beautifully written, creepy novella by Aliya Whiteley called “The Beauty” in which fungi play a major role. It’s only a hundred pages long. It was difficult to get hold of a paperback copy but if it’s on kindle, I recommend it:-)

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😀

      I distinctly remember a Hannibal episode where the murderer would put his victims into garden beds and plant fungi on them – and I think it might have played a role of an inspiration for Moreno-Garcia 😉

      Haven’t played The Last of Us, but after The Girl with All the Gifts I can imagine how creepy fungi can get! 😀 And thanks for the warning, I think I’ll steer clear of this game for now! 😉

      Like

    1. Exactly! All my British and American friends were wary of any mushrooms other than champignons, sometimes maybe willing to accept some bits in Asian cuisine, but nothing more. Even in NZ the only people picking wild mushrooms are from continental Europe 😉 I’d love to know what started this mushroom schism 😁 🍄🍄

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An intriguing review on many levels, indeed! As far as the story is concerned, I’m glad to learn that Moreno-Garcia once more gifted us with an enthralling story (despite the few misgivings you listed), although I’ve come to rely on her narrative skills by now.
    On the other hand, I’m curious about your mention of the uneasy “relationship” that people of Anglo-Saxon descent have with mushrooms: this is the first I’ve heard of it and it baffles me, since the addition of edible mushrooms to many common recipes is just something that “is” – no problems whatsoever. To quote a certain, well-know alien… “Fascinating” 😀
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, right? 😀 Porcini, or chanterelles (which in Polish are called “small hens”), or slippery jacks, or… so many to choose from! 😀

      Thanks for reading! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As always, a thoughtful and detailed review, Ola. So many tantalising hints to temp the busy reader (me), and then there’s the Fungi aspect, which is too, too tempting, even without your gorgeous illustrations. Have pity on my wishlist and please make your next reviews less tempting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Cath! 😀

      I’ll do my best, but can’t make any promises! 😉 I much prefer to write enthusiastic reviews (writing only scathing ones when I’m really irked), and writing reviews of so-so books is not as fun anyway ;).

      As a consolation, this one is much shorter than Anathem! And fungi play such a deliciously creepy role in it! I know you’re reading a Gothic novel now, so Mexican Gothic may serve as a nice modern counterpart… Just saying! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You do? Great! 😀 What kind of mushrooms do you eat? (And if the answer is inconvenient for any possible reason, just let me know, no need to go into details! 😝)
      As for a book, it starts slowly, but has really unique, creepy atmosphere – and some of the disturbing images just stay with you… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Being a King fan, I really like slow-burn horror so long as the creep factor or story telling is there.

        I have never tried drugs nor smoked, so the mushroom you were implying in brackets won’t make an appearance 😉 I love shitake mushrooms, but will eat any kind pretty much.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You might actually enjoy this one, both the slow-burn and the creepy factor are pretty high! 😀

          Sorry to pester you, but two more questions, then (and feel free not to answer, no pressure!) Are you adventurous by nature when it comes to trying food, or is mushroom consumption a family tradition? From my UK friends and my UK stays (brief as they were, but several) it seems mushrooms except for button mushrooms and Asian cuisine are viewed with suspicion as something to be avoided 😉

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’m very adventurous when trying food. My family are not. The furthest they will stretch is a chilli con carne or, in my father’s case, mexican food.

            I love trying new food from every culture … unless its some of those insects on skewers you get in certain parts of the world. Happy to give them a miss.

            Feel free to pester as often as you like. Not a bother 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Yeah, I’m not fond of insects either, though they may well be the answer to our food shortage problems 😉

            If you’re happy to try new things, and your Polish friends (or basically people from any middle European country) pick wild mushrooms, you may enjoy going with them! It’s a great experience, even if you know nothing about mushroom picking! 😀

            Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve seen this previously and been really interested. It sounds like a mix of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (neither of which I liked) but taking those atmospheric elements. Also, I like mushrooms and they’re a key staple of my diet but I didn’t know that that I was interested in a book that focuses on them. I also know that people do have a love hate relationship with mushrooms but growing up with a friend and asian cooking it just becomes this love for me and my heart is constantly crushed when trying to buy more than the common-or-garden button mushroom.

    Just out of interest would this fall into YA or adult for you? My mood influences when picking up either so just don’t want to pick it up in the wrong mood.

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    1. Oh, this is great! Yes, I am devastated by the fact that the only mushrooms available in shops are button mushrooms or dried Asian mushrooms!

      Definitely adult; there is some sexual abuse, lots of body horror, bits of psychosis and disturbing hallucinations and dreams, plus the characters are all adults. You’re right with Jane Eyre, but add to it a bit of Hannibal and move it to Mexico, and you’ll get Mexican Gothic 😀

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    1. Thanks! 😀 I think you’d enjoy it. Noemi starts off as a not particularly likeable character, but she grows on the reader – and grows up – very quickly, and the atmosphere in this book is just superb. I had a lot of fun with this one! 🙂

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  5. I’ll have to consider it. While I’m not a huge fan of horror 😅 or Hannibal, I like the ideas behind it. And the mushrooms. Hmmmm do the mushrooms get a POV?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s full of beautifully disturbing images, but it’s not a King-type of horror. I’m not a fan of typical horror either, I’ve read a few, but the only one I really liked till now was Odd Thomas, which is a very light-weight read as horrors go.

      The mushrooms… if I told you, I’d have to either lie or spoil the fun! Let’s say it’s not a POV as in haivng separate chapters, but they do play an important role 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. 1. This is a kickass review!
    2. From what you’ve said in the comments I’m even more intrigued.
    3. Re mushrooms. My Mom was a forager and a lot of our food came from this. We foraged for nuts, fruits, flowers and plants, but never mushrooms because, as you say, we in the UK have a suspicion/fear of them. I am fascinated that this is not so in Europe!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 1. Thank you! 😀
      2. That’s even better! 😀 I’m very hopeful that you’d enjoy this book a lot 🙂
      3. This is so interesting! Continental Europe is big on mushrooms; in some countries you actually have quotas on mushroom picking 😉 I have a very untested working theory that the Anglo-Saxon uneasiness around mushrooms goes back to Vikings and their waves of settling in Britain; I think Celts actually used mushrooms, but the inhabitants of modern Nordic countries seem to steer clear of mushrooms as well.
      I’ll need to look into it! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        I used to. Not so often now, I don’t walk through forest that much, and I’m no longer confident which ones are good… with a few tasty exceptions 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. ooh, I miss mushroom picking here – on North Island the only edible mushrooms that are plentiful and accessible are slippery jacks and while they’re very tasty and I enjoy going for forest trips to find them, I miss porcini the most (and chanterelles!)

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  7. Wow. Poetic horror? Sounds pretty. I didn’t know what body horror was but your warnings do make it all seem soooo good. I do have to say that fungi are by far one of the scariest things out there. Seeing it grow in timelapse is freaky beautiful but, ultimately, disgussssting hahaha I do appreciate it in horror stories though. As you mention. They’re either really good or reallllly bad, and that dichotomy makes for some really fun outcomes hahaha Fantastic review as always, Ola! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 😀 Too many horrors, Lashaan? 😉 Fungi are absolutely amazing! And I think they’re mostly scary because we don’t know much about them, still. And yes, they can be pretty scary: one death cap can kill a whole family, and you won’t even feel a thing. Or the fungi responsible for zombie ants – these are really creepy! But imagine your life without yeast! Penicilin! Portobello mushrooms! :D:D

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  8. This was an interesting review! I don’t know if I would read this book, I have mixed feeling toward it, but I have read some great reviews (like yours here) that really made me curious.
    And I never thought about fungi, but what you wrote was interesting. Here in Italy you go looking for them as an “excuse” to go for a walk with family or friends in the woods, even if it is a thing that is slowly dying. My parents know a great number of different edible fungi, but I know just a couple of them, if I am left on my own, for example. And I know that in France, or at least, some part of it, it is the same. But I never wondered about it!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! 😊
      It is a horror, and it is quite disturbing; there are plenty of triggers, but in general the tone of all this creepy stuff is still quite tame and not hard-core at all. It’s inspired by traditional Gothic novels, so suspense and mystery and slow madness are its staples much more than gore. Hope this will help you decide! 😀

      Yes, the cultural variety in attitudes toward mushrooms is amazing, isn’t it? I know basically all of continental Europe picks wild mushrooms, except for Nordic countries – and Britain 😉 Sad to hear the tradition is dying out, though!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #128 – Book Jotter

  10. buriedinprint

    The comments here are a-l-m-o-s-t as interesting as your review. Who knew that there would be so much to say about mushrooms/fungi? (If you enjoy table-top games, there is a cute 2-player game called Morels, cards actually, complete with baskets to gather your “hand”.) Though I’m not a forager, I enjoy eating the wild mushrooms that others forage: porcini, chanterells, portobello, cremini, enoki, shiitake, oysters and morels (just once a year, sometimes twice, and none at all this year, sadly). The only ones that I’m not fond of are the lobster mushrooms (I can’t recall their proper names, pink and slightly fishy tasting) but my partner loves them too, so they are not discriminated against. I love the idea of mushroom picking, but I’m not educated enough to try to do so. This book sounds like a great read, and even though I didn’t know the term “body horror”, I needed to know that, and can think of other examples too. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, this is something close to my heart – we have a few multi-player table-top games in Poland called “Na grzyby” and “Grzybobranie”, which translates loosely to “mushroom picking”. You get tiny wooden mushrooms on the field, and you need to pick the good ones and avoid the bad ones 😉 There are baskets, too! And there’s also an edition with small cards with photographs on mushrooms, so that you can expand your fungi knowledge while playing 😀
      Never tried lobster mushroom, though from what I read it’s actually a parasitic fungus, so I’d probably be careful 😉
      This book might slightly put you off mushrooms – but then again, maybe not! 😀

      Thank you! 😀

      Like

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