Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is a skillful blend of romance, history, mystery, and horror. But as I read the book, I found myself wishing Moreno-Garcia had incorporated (minor) elements from an additional genre.
Mexican Gothic takes place in 1950. The tale begins in Mexico City, where our protagonist Noemí Taboada—a flighty student vaguely interested in anthropology and “easy, shallow men”—is informed by her father that her older cousin Catalina has written a disturbing letter that raises doubts about her mental state. Noemí’s father charges her with visiting her cousin and ascertaining whether her nascent marriage into the Doyle family can be salvaged (and thus prevent a scandal). The Doyles aren’t to be trusted, though. They made their fortune running a silver mine near the remote mountain town of El Triunfo. But the mine has been closed for more than thirty years, and the Doyles have fallen on hard times. They may be prioritizing Catalina’s money over her well-being.
Here’s where the history comes in. As Moreno-Garcia notes in her afterword, colonialism and its emphasis on extractive capitalism thread through much of the novel. The Doyles hail from England; the mine was previously operated by the Spanish; both entities exploited the locals to acquire their riches. Howard, the Doyle patriarch, also ascribes to eugenics, viewing mestizos like Noemí as members of an inferior, “disharmonic race” that nevertheless possess “splendid attributes” such as a “robustness of body.”
But mystery quickly rises to the fore once Noemí arrives in El Triunfo. What happened to Catalina to make her think the walls of High Place, the Doyle’s dilapidated mansion, can speak to her? Why did the miners of El Triunfo frequently die of a mysterious illness that caused ranting and convulsions? And at the height of the mine’s prosperity, what motivated Howard’s daughter to shoot him along with several other Doyles and herself? Noemí investigates these questions and others with the reluctant help of Francis, yet another Doyle.
In terms of romance, Francis represents a potential love interest, albeit an unlikely one; he’s awkward and studious—nothing like Noemí’s usual type. Virgil, Howard’s son and Catalina’s handsome but haughty husband, is more in keeping with Noemí’s taste in men. But her attraction to Virgil is tinged with a danger that stretches beyond the thrill of lusting after her cousin’s partner.
Yet at its core, Mexican Gothic is a horror story. High Place is very much a haunted house, looming like a “great, quiet gargoyle” with windows that look to Noemí like “lidless, eager eyes.” It contains rot of multiple kinds, disfiguring the land and conjuring dark dreams in which it appears to guests as a decaying organism with sores in place of walls and “sickly organs instead of brick or wooden boards.” Moreno-Garcia has a talent for peppering her descriptions with this sort of imaginative grossness, and the story only gets stranger as it goes.
So what did I find lacking? As Moreno-Garcia acknowledges, the book is partially meant to be a “romp through a trove of Gothic tropes.” It’s certainly that! But I wonder if deviating slightly further from those tropes and mixing in a dash of fantasy might have made for a more satisfying brew. I’m not suggesting she should have added anything on the order of elves and dragons; Mexican Gothic certainly doesn’t need to change its fundamental nature by injecting a Tolkienesque helping of magic and mythical creatures. Thematically, though, Noemí’s character development might have been more compelling if she’d progressed along a mini-hero’s journey. She evolves, but not in a way that requires exercising much agency or making particularly difficult choices. Virgil is obviously toxic, with little to recommend him even before Noemí learns more about his intended place in the Doyle’s twisted lineage—he never feels like a viable suitor. And the book’s resolution only minimally depends on Noemi’s actions to that point. She doesn’t capitalize on a weakness her sleuthing uncovered or apply a new skill honed during her time at High Place; the ending happens to her as much as it’s driven by anything she accomplished.
So all in all, I enjoyed A God of Jade and Shadows (one of Moreno-Garcia’s earlier works, which incorporates quite a bit of fantasy) more than Mexican Gothic. But the latter’s craft kept me engaged, and I look forward to reading more of Moreno-Garcia’s fiction—regardless of how many genres it does or doesn’t mash together.
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