In my humble opinion, a good gothic novel should accomplish a few things and I believe Mexican Gothic checks these boxes and then some.
It should create an atmosphere of mystery, terror, and dark brooding undertones. There should be a majestic house or mansion that upon first viewing causes the gut to clench and a white-knuckled grip that I imagine would be clutching a classic, voluminous period-piece skirt. And this novel should have an element of romance that pits the power of love against the foe of deathly horrors.
Think Rebecca, Jane Eyre and Frankenstein. Total classics of the genre, each conjuring up imagery of barefoot women running through a stony castle in the middle of the night. Spooky. Deliciously eery. Pulling you in to every chapter with a renewed sense of ‘shiver me timbers’.
And so we arrive at Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The cover of this book entranced me for a while before I gave in to its power. Easily belonging to the aforementioned genre and classic, this book is a delicious intrigue redolent with horrors not limited to the natural or metaphysical world — horrors found in class, race and gender issues of mid 20th century Mexico.
Noemí has been tasked by her father to visit her cousin Catalina in the hills of Hidalgo, a central state of Mexico that is colder and mistier than to her hometown of Mexico City.
It seems Catalina has been unwell as she’s been settling into the ancestral Doyle mansion owned by her new in-laws — and Noemí’s father is fearing his niece’s mind has started to fray.
Catilina has sent a letter accusing her husband of poisoning her in the house that “is sick with rot, stinks of decay, brims with every single evil and cruel sentiment”.
As Noemí ventures into the house and discovers more of its inhabitants, she senses something isn’t quite right. The people are strange. Her dreams are more akin to nightmares.
Her sleepwalking and hallucinations are indeed eery, and Noemí is keen to find out what’s wrong with her cousin and then get both of them the hell out of there. However leaving the mansion, with its spellbinding wallpaper, mutating fungus and unravelling stories from the past that still seem ever so alive, seems impossible for anyone who enters.
This is a story where the horrors are many. On the surface, it seems to be that they’re the spooky poltergeists and energies of a typical gothic novel; yet as you meet more of the characters, you realise the real horror is the eugenics, racist undertones and classist snobbery of the British family who have called Mexico home.
This is lusssshhhhh. Admittedly, those gorgeous jewel-toned colours really piqued my interest and the overall design is what made me read the synopsis in the first place. However………. I’m seeing a few too many similar vibes from Next Year in Havana (MG is way better though). I hope this doesn’t become a trend of ‘girl in vintage clothing sitting on couch’ much like the ‘WW2 woman looking away as she stands in pasture/cobblestones/boat/dirt’ cover trope.
Measured and atmospheric.
The way Moreno-Garcia paces this book out, I’ll admit, irked me at first. Like when waiting in a fit of hanger as you stare at the microwave while it finishes zapping last night’s pizza, I tried desperately to avoid seeing how much there was left to go.
However, in reflection the slowness was perfect and having patience pays off. The ever-looming sense of dread, the creepy undertones to the dialogue of this bizarre family — it all built up in a slow-burn melancholy that seemed to mirror the vibes of the gloom-stricken Catalina and Noemí.
And then all of a sudden — BOOM! — it went THERE. I can’t say any more, but yeah. It’s a doozy.
The protagonist Noemí along with her cousin and a resilient ancestor create a feminist spin on the classic gothic tale. They are powerful women, rising to meet their monster-like foes. Noemí is challenged constantly for her headstrong ways, which prove to be her only weapon in the task of survival.
She wanted to be liked. Perhaps this explained the parties, the crystalline laughter, the well-coiffed hair, the rehearsed smile. She thought that men such as her father could be stern and men could be cold like Virgil, but women needed to be liked or they’d be in trouble. A woman who is not liked is a bitch, and a bitch can hardly do anything: all avenues are closed to her.
Silvana Moreno-Garcia, ‘Mexican Gothic’
As ever with stories of this genre, what starts eery and creepy turns into something a little more gruesome. You won’t guess what’s coming. This story gets a little grisly, but it’s digestible. Pardon the pun.
Mushrooms play a big part of this story. And I like the symbolism. Mushrooms do best when they’re hidden from the light, kept in the damp and given sh*t to deal with. This very much represents the women of this story as well as the native Mexican people, who are used and abused by the Doyles.
The contextual overview of Mexico at that time, something I know little of, was a valuable addition. I really enjoyed the visceral details of not only the horror-infested house, but the beautiful terrain of the Mexican mountains and the vibrant culture that was presented in a less-than-stereotypical telling.
Most of all, this book was suspenseful and dramatic. One of my favourite books is Jane Eyre and I felt like I was wondering in similar, spooky woods while reading Mexican Gothic.
A fun and interesting read for those seeking something a little off-beat.
Fable and Fizz would like to acknowledge the Whadjuck Noongar people as the traditional owners and continual custodians on the lands and waters this content is primarily written on. I pay respects to their Elders — past and present. This always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.