Book Review: MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
In 1950s Mexico, a headstrong socialite embarks on an adventure to save her cousin from a questionable marriage, a potentially haunted gothic mansion, and some twisted family secrets. (And also a lot of mushrooms.)
Title: Mexican Gothic
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Genre: Fantasy, Horror
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: June 30, 2020
Hardcover: 320 pages
An isolated mansion. A chillingly charismatic aristocrat. And a brave socialite drawn to expose their treacherous secrets. . . . From the author of Gods of Jade and Shadow comes “a terrifying twist on classic gothic horror” (Kirkus Reviews) set in glamorous 1950s Mexico.
After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.
Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.
Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.
And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Purchased
Noemí Taboada knows how to work a crowd. Rich, well-connected, young, and beautiful, Noemí knows how to fluster, flirt, and manipulate others in high society–though, truly, Noemí craves the freedom to follow her passions. Unfortunately for Noemí, earning a master’s degree in anthropology or perfecting her ability to play the piano are not skills that her parents want her to pursue–making a strategic marriage to strengthen the family’s business, name, and prosperity is the Taboada top priority. Family is everything.
So, when Noemí’s father receives a letter from his newlywed niece Catalina, claiming that her new husband and his family and the house itself are trying to poison her, he is quick to act forcefully and discretely. He tasks Noemí with going to El Triunfo to ascertain the situation and make sure Catalina is safe–in return, he will give Noemí his permission to apply for university. Noemí doesn’t need much urging–Catalina is a beloved cousin, and Noemí quickly sets off to help.
What Noemí discovers is a sleepy, forgotten mountain town–after the silver mine dried up, and a string of tragedies, the entire economy of El Triunfo collapsed. And sitting atop a treacherous winding road looking down at town is High Place–a gothic English manor transported to Mexico decades earlier by Howard Doyle, Catalina’s new father-in-law. It is here, in High Place, where Noemí is bound to stay to help her cousin. High Place is large and once proud, but now a slowly rotting relic of a different time–it is a cold, inhospitable kind of home that immediately sets Noemí on edge.
The Doyle family, however, is perhaps even more unnerving than their mansion. There is Catalina’s handsome but coldly reserved husband, Virgil, whom Noemí has met before yet knows nothing about. Florence, Virgil’s aunt, who is stern, gray, and seems to hate Noemí on sight. Florence’s son and Virgil’s cousin, Francis, is the first to meet Noemí and seems to be the only friendly soul in High Place–though Noemí suspects he’s hiding something. And, Howard Doyle himself, patriarch of the Doyle line–a decrepit, ancient man (who espouses arguments for eugenics and remarks on Noemí’s dark coloring and beauty upon their first meeting).
The Doyles insist that Catalina is just suffering from tuberculosis–their private doctor is personally caring for her, and that her hallucinations and psychosis are common side effects to her medication. Noemí, seeing Catalina is a pale version of her former self, is not so sure.
What Noemí knows is this: something is wrong in High Place. And she is determined to understand what is happening to her cousin–even if the same affliction begins to take hold of Noemí herself.
The proverbial cat is out of the bag regarding Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work; I have long been a fan of her short fiction (The Prime Meridian is absolutely excellent) and novels (Gods of Jade and Shadow, Signal to Noise, etc). Moreno-Garcia is able to fluidly write in science fiction, fantasy, and horror, blending magic with urban legends and folklore, transforming old tropes into something new with her sharp characters’ perspectives. Mexican Gothic is no exception; it is a proper gothic novel, resplendent with sublime imagery, family secrets, and yes, even romance. But add to that traditional framework a 1950s Mexico setting and the tensions and interpretations of race and class–this is what distinguishes Mexican Gothic from every other recent retelling of haunted houses on hills and modernist Brontës.
As with any work of horror, and especially gothic horror, much emphasis is placed on the strength of characters–both heroes and villains. Although it’s hard initially to relate to Noemí’s cynical approach to others, quickly she becomes more tangible and less of a persona, as she tries to navigate the oddness and wrongness of the Doyle household. As we learn more about Noemí and her relationship with Catalina, she becomes even more sympathetic and real–Moreno-Garcia creates a character who is definitely not perfect or passive, and Noemí is forced to confront her own darkness by book’s end. If Noemí is a heroine worth rooting for, there’s also the horrifying specter of Howard Doyle and his son, Virgil, in their calculated cruelty. There are secrets upon secrets, layers of desire, deception, and predatory, terrifying, power in the Doyle line–but for all of that cruelty and darkness, there is also hope that not every cycle needs to be repeated. (Francis is proof of that.)
Arguably the more important element in gothic fiction is the setting itself–and once again, Moreno-Garcia nails it. A town destroyed by a silver mine and greed, now forgotten by the rest of the world, El Triunfo’s remote decrepitude is achingly real. But High Place is the true star of this book, with its molding wallpaper, musty hallways, and almost complete lack of any technological upgrades, like electrical lighting. The house pulsates and squirms, and Moreno-Garcia’s use of mushroom imagery, the overripe sickly sweet rot that pervades High Place and Noemí’s mind, is absolutely fantastic. As you read the book, there are many possible explanations that start to make themselves known–are Catalina and Noemí dealing with some kind of environmental agent shaping their thoughts? Is it something more supernatural and insidious? Is it both, or neither?
Hint: the “reveal” and subsequent climactic final act is absolute bloody perfection, but I won’t spoil that for you.
Don’t just take my word for it; read it yourself and find out.
Rating: 8 – BRILLIANT