The following is a review from my wife, Claire, about our time reading the latest by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. It was a part of a book club from the Fort Worth library. I have some opinions of my own, but after reading her review, I realized I could not have said it better myself. Without further ado, I’ll let her take it away.
Mexican implies something being from, or at the very least resembling, Mexico. Gothic often refers to the architectural style, or the combination of horror, death, and sometimes romance, and the supernatural in literature.
In my opinion, Mexican Gothic is neither of these things.
I recently subjected my husband to the audio version of the book while on a road trip. I wanted to participate in a book club, and what else were we going to do? We ended up listening at twice the speed as it was so painfully slow. The book’s pacing was definitely an issue, but more than just that, the content left a lot to be desired as well.
The story opens in Mexico City where we meet Noemi Taboada enjoying a socialite life of parties and young men.After receiving a concerning letter from her cousin, Catalina, Noemi goes to visit her and her new English husband, Virgil Doyle. She arrives at the Victorian-style manor where the newlyweds live, along with his father, Howard, his cousin and her adult son, Florence and Francis, and three house servants. The house, fittingly named High Place, is at the top of a perilous mountain and contains a cemetery and out of use silver mine. After Noemi starts having visions of Doyle family memories and witnessing Catalina’s strange and depressive mood, she begins to understand what Catalina meant by “the house won’t let me leave.”
The house is dark, damp, and in disrepair, surrounded by heavy mist and a plethora of unwanted (or perhaps, wanted?) fungal growths. Noemi befriends Francis and later learns the true horrors of the Doyle family: eternal life.As it turns out, Howard had discovered the mushrooms that grant healing and everlasting life in England, and moved to Mexico in order to avert any suspicion. The secret involves incest to keep the bloodline pure, as well as canibalism, and as a result has given Howard the godlike quality of being able to control the other Doyle’s. The house is also part of this control. The living relic of the Doyle legacy. In one of their exchanges, Howard explains to Noemi that the incest rendered many women barren and so “fresh blood” must occasionally be selected and inserted to the family tree. And so, he reveals, Noemi must marry Francis.
In a wedding ceremony straight out of a horror movie, Howard regurgitates black sludge into Noemi’s mouth, thereby starting the Doyle control of her. Back in the bridal chamber, Virgil attempts to rape her, forcing Noemi to knock him out in self defence. She then rushes to find Francis, who has promised escape for her and Catalina. The three heroes reconvene in Howards’s room, killing Florence and further injuring the already weak and dying patriarch. The three then begin their escape only to be stopped by Virgil at the “heart” of the house: the buried-alive corpse of Howard’s first wife covered in mushrooms. A fight ensues, and Virgil is killed, leaving Noemi, Catalina, and Francis to escape, but not before first setting the house ablaze and thereby ending the Doyle control once and for all.
Firstly, let me preface this by saying I am very much a basic white, European-American. I am not well versed in anything mexican (unless we’re talking about Tex-Mex…) and I am definitely no expert in Gothic literature (though I do consider myself to be a reader and lover of all things creepy and historic). That said, here are my thoughts:
Let me address the Mexican part of the title.There is nothing particularly mexican about this book. Nothing. There are brief references to Mexico City. Some names are Hispanic in origin, there are two mentions of traditional Mexican foods, and one passing comment about El Cuco, a creature in Mexican folklore. But that’s where anything Mexican ends. The house and story could have been set anywhere.There was no vivid description to set the story in Mexico specifically. No detailed passages of local tradition or culture. Not even longing wishes from Catalina or Noemi for the comforts or food of their home.
At one point in the story, Catalina enlists the services of an old woman who makes tincture using dried herbs and foraged plants. Most every culture has some version of this character, whether it’s the Slavic Baba Yaga, African witch doctors, or those burned at the stake in Salem. Yet this woman in the story is never assigned to any part of cultural or traditional meaning. This character could also transition onto the Gothic part of the novel’s title. Mexico is home to many traditional religions that include magical elements. Granted, I do not know much about these cultures. In fact, much of what i do know comes from TV (perhaps not the most accurate of depictions…). The old woman could have been a Bruja, a woman practitioner of the magical religion Brujemia (thank you HBO’S TrueBlood…) or perhaps she followed the folk catholicism of Santa Muerte, or Saint Death who is associated with healing (Showtime’s Penny Dreadfuls: City of Angels includes elements of this particular part of Mexican culture.). Not to mention Day of the Dead, Mexico is a culture that has a rich history of revering the dead and incorporating death into their lives. Gothic novels include death and the unexplainable, and I think Mexican Gothic missed out by not including Mexico folk magic.
Maybe the Gothic of the title does not refer to horror, death, or magic but simply to the physicalities of the house and surrounding locale. The house is Victorian in style but that does not automatically make it Gothic. Instead, it is the house set on sprawling, unforgiving grounds that evokes the memory of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, an English gothic novel. Indeed, the house itself is in poor condition, covered in mould, invoking death and decay. Several times in the novel, Noemi and Francis remark upon how fungi and mushrooms sprout from death. In this way the house is Gothic, not just in style, but also in the way that it sprouts from death.
However, Gothic literature never just refers to Gothic architecture.
Lastly, I want to remind you that Gothic implies romance. Often it’s a grand, sweeping love that is both suspenseful and thrilling. The vastness of the location is often mirrored by the scale of the love. I didn’t think there was anything thrilling about the flirtation from Noemi, and the ultimate outcome of a loving relationship between her and Francis was less than suspenseful because there was never any chemistry. In Gothic romance, the author also relies heavily on tone and mood to set the stage for both horror and love. Mexican Gothic attempts this with the pathos of the mist and the general creepy feeling that the house gives Noemi. However, much like the smokescreen creating the illusion of horror where none exists, Moreno-Garcia only offers the shell of romance.
There were points in the novel where I wondered as to Silvia Mureno-Garcia’s background, A little digging on the internet told me that she was in fact born in Mexico. She has written short stories set in Mexico, and wrote her Master’s thesis on H.P. Lovecraft. Clearly she is no stranger to horror fiction, Mexico, or fantastical magic. Why then did I find Mexican Gothic so lacking, especially when the author seemed so primed to make it both Mexican and Gothic? Ultimately, I found the book dull, with little substance and even less to say on the matter of the title. I believe the book failed in its current state, however could have been a successful short story under a different name, or a novel with more fleshed out Gothic and Mexican details.But enough about what I think. Have you read Mexican Gothic? I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!