Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Title: Mexican Gothic
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.
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.