Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novel Mexican Gothic deserves to be heralded as a new classic of the genre. It’s tempting to say that Moreno-Garcia brings a breath of fresh air to the Gothic novel, but as fans know, Gothics leave no room for fresh air. They’re claustrophobic and dread-filled; the walls of their crumbling, oppressive mansions are always, in one way or another, closing in.
What Moreno-Garcia does with the genre, then, is something else. Call it putting equal weight on both words of the title. The story is both unmistakably Gothic—full of suspicion, paranoia, literal and figurative darkness—and proudly Mexican, rooted in a specific culture and time in a way that expands and enhances the story.
The heroine around which the story revolves, Noemí Taboada, is hardly the naïve damsel figure so common in Gothic novels, and Moreno-Garcia’s novel is all the better for it. Noemí is a glamorous firecracker, ahead of her time in 1950s Mexico City; a little spoiled and selfish, but fiercely intelligent. When a frantic, unsettling letter from her newlywed cousin Catalina shows up, she’s uniquely suited to investigate just what the hell is going on. Her father asks her to discreetly evaluate the situation—are Catalina’s claims that her new husband is trying to poison her symptoms of mental illness, the truth, or something else altogether? In exchange for dropping everything to travel to far-off El Triunfo, he offers Noemí an irresistible reward: once she returns, he’ll allow her to enroll in the National University for the master’s degree in anthropology she’s been begging him to let her pursue. Deal done, Noemí and her two jam-packed suitcases are on the next train.
Despite her intelligence, once she arrives at her cousin’s new husband’s super-creepy family estate, High Place, Noemí is in over her head just as a classically innocent Gothic heroine would be. The estate is an isolated location near an already-isolated small town, with near-silent servants and family members who say things like “As a general rule, we do not speak during dinner.” The long shadows, moldy wallpaper and flickering lamplight of High Place reinforce the ominous mood, but the Doyles themselves make the estate truly troubling.
The family patriarch is a frail, superannuated horror named Howard Doyle. Immediately after introducing himself to Noemí for the first time, he kicks off the conversation by observing, “You are much darker than your cousin, Miss Taboada,” and quickly reveals himself as an enthusiast of eugenics, further digging into his guest’s “thoughts on the intermingling of superior and inferior types” and calling her an example of “a new beauty.” Of English descent, the Doyles own a now-defunct silver mine in which countless local Mexican workers perished; issues of race, class and power charge nearly every interaction, every discovery, every secret. The way these issues play out in the twisty plot feels both unexpected and inevitable, and Moreno-Garcia shows a deft hand in managing the plot’s many revelations at just the right pace to keep the reader riveted.
It’s worth noting that the novel is classified not just as Gothic, but also horror, and especially as the darkest of the Doyle family’s secrets come to light, scenes play out with a level of violence, ghoulishness and gore that fit that genre’s expectations. Just when you think you’ve seen the worst, Moreno-Garcia twists the knife one more time, and the result is both grotesque and satisfying.
Mexican Gothic isn’t for everyone—squeamish readers beware—but it delivers perfectly on the promise of its gorgeous cover, one of my favorites of the year. Like that cover, it’s alluring and foreboding, ambiguous and beautiful. And like its heroine Noemí, it’s ambitious, determined, and well worth getting to know.
Del Rey Books
June 30, 2020
Bestselling author of THE MAGICIAN'S LIE and GIRL IN DISGUISE. Feminist, mother, mystery. Now out: WOMAN 99, March 2019 in the US & Canada.