by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Expected publication date June 30, 2020, by Del Rey
The Gothic novel has long been a notorious subgenre defined by its unrepentant melodrama, eerie mansions, gloomy locales, and family skeletons lurking in every closet. With her new novel, Mexican Gothic, Canadian author Silvia Moreno-Garcia presents a fascinating new take on the traditional Gothic novel.
In 1950s Mexico, the glamorous Noemí Taboada receives a frantic letter from her newly married cousin Catalina, who claims that she’s being poisoned and begs for Noemí’s help. Though Noemí is more suited to fashionable parties and dates with handsome young men, she can’t refuse Catalina’s pleas, and so she sets out for High Place, a neglected mansion in the Mexican countryside. There, she meets Catalina’s new family, the Doyles: Virgil, her menacing and yet alluring English husband; Howard, the family’s patriarch, who develops a strange obsession with Noemí; Florence, with her strict rules regarding behavior; and shy, gentle Francis who actually seems to want to help Noemí, but may have dark secrets of his own. Though she is in equal measures repulsed by and infuriated at these English interlopers, Noemí refuses to abandon her cousin. So she puts her intelligence and wits to work and sets out to discover the mystery of Catalina’s illness. But the more she digs, the stranger and more violent the story becomes. And what’s more, the house seems to have a life of its own, working its way into Noemí’s dreams until she is unsure of the line between reality and nightmare. And the longer she stays at High Place, the more Noemí finds that she might never be able to leave.
“She looked over her shoulder before turning a corner. He seemed a bit ghostly, still standing by the doorway, with the glow of the lanterns and candles in his room lighting his blond hair like an unearthly flame. They said, in dusty little towns around the country, that witches could turn into balls of fire and fly through the air. That’s how they explained will-o’-the-wisps. And she thought of that, and of the dream she’d had about a golden woman.”
The traditional Gothic heroine is often a naïve ingenue, a young woman who takes a position as a governess in a strange old house or who marries a rich, handsome man with an air of menace about him. This heroine eventually discovers the tragic truth of the place she has come to– often at the risk of her life or virtue. In early Gothic tales, such as The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole or Dracula by Bram Stoker, however, the heroine is often a passive character who exists to be threatened and then rescued by the brave men around her. This narrative doesn’t play well in the twenty-first century (nor did it work for the Brontë sisters in the nineteenth century, whose Gothic heroines seethe with barely repressed fury), where works like The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova or Guillermo del Toro’s 2015 film Crimson Peak feature proactive women who refuse to be overwhelmed by their circumstances. With Mexican Gothic, we have another entrant into the list of strong women facing surreal circumstances. Though the rules of High House are strict and its silences overwhelming, Noemí is not cowed by them. She goes out in search of answers, and when her nightmares begin turning into disturbing reality, she does not forget who she is or what she does– or does not– want.
In another break from the traditional Gothic novel, the setting of Mexican Gothic is not the English moors or a lonely European castle in the woods. As the name suggests, it is set in Mexico, opening up in the glamorous Mexico City where Noemí’s wealthy family lives, and where she rules her social circle. Noemí’s world is one of fashion, light, and color, which is a stark contrast to the gloom and faded colors of High Place. There is no cheer or excitement in the crumbling mansion, only an old English family’s desire to return to their glory days when their control of the local silver mine gave them the money and power to rule over the people of the village below, and use them like disposable tools. Colonialism isn’t just ships sailing into a harbor and taking over entire countries. Sometimes its the ruination of a single town that feeds the endless greed of the conquerors.
Feelings of dread and danger wind their way through this book, creating an eerie and compelling narrative that’s hard to put down. Noemí might never be able to leave High Place, and you may never want to.
Thank you to NetGalley and Del Rey for providing me with a free eBook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.