Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Title: Velvet Was the Night
The newest Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s book is a historical noir mystery/crime, set in the simmering danger of 1970s Mexico, when both the people and the country seemed inescapably gripped in a continuous, dispiriting turmoil. Whatever else you’ve read by this author, Velvet Was the Night might still surprise you. There’s not a whiff of supernatural anywhere; well, except for the very real horror that humans are capable of. There’s also not much of a romance, or beauty. Indeed, Velvet Was the Night is a surprisingly political book, depicting violent actions of increasingly more desperate, more ruthless factions of an internal conflict fueled by ideology, economy, and foreign interests. While its scope and stakes seem small – no grand assassinations or rebellions, no dramatic political shifts, just common people caught between a rock and a hard place – the ultimate price is still paid in the most valuable currency: human life and decency.
Throughout the novel we follow two protagonists, at first glance seeming as different from each other as they could possibly be: Elvis, a young member of the historical right-wing, government-trained paramilitary organization called Hawks (los Halcones) who were responsible for the Corpus Christi massacre in 1971 in Mexico City, in which over a hundred protesters were killed; and Maite, a 30-something secretary escaping her routine, lonely life into romance comics and American music. For Elvis, the membership in the Hawks is a form of social advancement; it gives him an anchor, a place of belonging, and means for learning new skills. Maite feels trapped in her own life, depressing and meaningless, always on the verge of debt; she makes up her own fantastic stories just to escape the dreary reality she doesn’t feel she can change. Neither of them is a revolutionary, a saint, or an idealistic warrior for truth or justice; they are just trying to scrape by. But in the 1970s in Mexico City even a shred of conscience or a simple coincidence might put you in trouble – as both Maite and Elvis will learn. Their fates draw close and finally intersect when evidence incriminating the Hawks in the students’ massacre goes missing, hidden somewhere by Maite’s rebellious but connected neighbor, Leonora.
While Velvet Was the Night has only two main protagonists, it boasts of an impressive supporting cast. There are secret police and art collectives, nosy neighbors (and one very vexing mother), frightened journalists, poor students and snobby heirs to family money, KGB agents and Jesuit priests, and hapless moles. I won’t spoil any more plot details; suffice to say Moreno-Garcia managed to craft a classic, politically flavored noir, with characters in every shade of grey, an abundance of moral ambiguity, a claustrophobic feeling of no escape, and no clear-cut happy endings. While the plot is somewhat predictable, the Chekhov’s guns all going off in the final act in equally satisfying and saddening ways, what really matters in Velvet Was the Night is the ride, not the destination. It is heartfelt and heartbreaking in its depiction of the young and old Mexicans, raised and broken by the system, often misguided even in what they firmly believe is right, often openly corrupted by the power they enjoyed, by the fear and pain they were subjected to. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the fate of my own country in that strange, tumultuous time: while the ideological poles might have been reversed, the policies, the methods, the dilemmas were the same.
The dual perspective of Elvis and Maite works very well indeed; while it gives the plot the necessary dynamics, it also serves a non-literary, maybe even more important purpose. It would be easy to show only one point of view, to firmly point a finger to the victims and the perpetrators; but Moreno-Garcia avoids that trap of attribution and makes the whole story so much more believable and humane. She doesn’t absolve the killers, she doesn’t lionize the protesters; by showing the inner workings of the system, clandestinely influenced by both CIA and KGB as just another proxy conflict of the Cold War, treated as a bid for power and money by various internal factions, she refers the final judgment to the reader.
While at first glance Velvet Was the Night seems unlike any other Moreno-Garcia’s work I’ve read, on a deeper level it’s still the same grand arc she writes in her every book: a story of the human search for connection. A story of imperfect, broken people looking for a bit of happiness in a world that’s anything but; a story of resilience and hope, surprising even for the protagonists themselves. And even though Velvet Was the Night is probably the most depressing of Moreno-Garcia’s books I’ve read so far, it is also weirdly satisfying in a way her other books weren’t. Maybe it’s the historical setting, and the very real circumstances in which the plot takes place; maybe it’s the noir character of the novel, subdued and gray, but also incredibly apt, considering the times it is depicting. Maybe it’s the bitter-sweet nostalgia cut with abrupt horror and underscored by the sentimental, throaty songs that play incessantly in the background, creating a unique mood – there’s a whole playlist here, and Moreno-Garcia kindly supplies all the titles at the end of the book (there’s even an accompanying Spotify playlist, if you want to enhance your experience). Whatever the reason, that hard-to-pinpoint, amorphous, moody presence makes Velvet Was the Night the best of Moreno-Garcia’s books I’ve read. It certainly won’t be the last, too – she’s a highly versatile, talented author with plenty of interesting stories to tell.
All in all, Velvet Was the Night is a well-crafted, intriguing historical political noir; a sweet and sad song to Mexico’s past, a heartfelt character study, a subdued maybe-romance hidden beneath puddles of blood and broken teeth.
I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.