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1 April 2020

Review - Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Cover by 2Faced Design
Untamed Shore
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Polis Books, 27 February 2020
HB, 282pp; e; audio, 8 hr 1 min (narr. Maria Liatis)

I listened to Untamed Shore as an audiobook downloaded from an online subscription service.

Silvia Morena-Garcia is an impressively versatile author, ranging between genres (SFF, romance, thriller) and themes and, in my experience, she never disappoints.

In Untamed Shore she gives us a noir-tinged thriller which evokes classic films of the 40s, 50s and 60s - it isn't too much of a stretch to imagine this story taking place in black and white, acted out by the chiselled profiles and dangerous beauties of Hollywood - even though it's set later, in 1979. Actually, that setting lends Untamed Shore the ability to reference and build on this stock of imagery so that Viridiana, our protagonist (herself named for a film heroine) comments knowing about actors, themes and atmosphere.

And indeed that's entirely fitting. Into Viridiana's provincial world, to the little town in Baja California where she spends her summer watching the dead sharks rot, dodging strutting boys and resisting her mother's plots to marry her off - into this world comes a trio of glamorous strangers, American tourists who've taken a house for the summer.

Introduced to them by her father's friend, the Dutchman Reinier, Viridiana takes on the role of guide, translator and secretary to Ambrose, his wife Daisy, and her brother, Gregory. There's a certain implied louche glamour to the the three, a sense of a past, of money and, soon, of danger. Staying in their house, Viridiana is well placed first to pry out secrets - to overhear things, find things - and then, after a death, to become involved in those secrets.

At the same time Moreno-Garcia shows us a young woman growing up in this back of nowhere town, yearning for the bright lights of Paris or of Mexico City where her father is. But don't fall into the trap of seeing the place as or its people as unsophisticated or backward. That's the mistake that Ambrose, Daisy and Gregory make, as well as others who come to the place later after the trouble starts. This book isn't written from the perspective of the strangers who come to town - strangers who don't even bother to speak the language - rather it's an affectionate and almost loving depiction of things (even is a warts-and-all depiction) from the inside.

What matters rot Viridiana is her future - that life away from the town - and she studies the effects on that future off all the undercurrents here, the swirls of gossip and reputation, the formalities represented by the Mayor or the local policeman and which can be managed through an understanding of who is in what card game on a Friday night or who has interests where.

The book put me in mind of a typology of crimes set out by the author George Orwell in his essay The Decline of the English Murder. Writing during the Second World War, he lamented the displacement of the classic domestic murder (generally a middle aged husband ridding himself of his no longer wanted wife) beloved of the British Sunday papers, by a more public style of killing - and by younger killers, of both sexes, swimming in an atmosphere of drink, dance halls and flickering Hollywood. In actual fact the first type of killing remains with us of course - domestic violence doesn't go away so easily (as we see here) - but the second sort is and was incontestably more glamorous and Moreno-Garcia hits all the notes here in telling a story that has femmes fatales, guns, hoodlums and duplicity in spades alongside a genuine streak of moral ambiguity. I don't think there's anyone in this book who is altogether admirable, but nearly everyone is understandable - Moreno-Garcia gives us complex and real characters and to a degree you can sympathise with m most of them (though I didn't take to Ambrose).

If you've read Moreno-Garcia's last book, Gods of Jade and Shadow, you might see this as something as a companion with some similar themes. Again we have a young woman growing up in a backwater who wishes to go places and who takes the chance in both hands when it comes. There, the opportunity is an unlikely liaison with the god of death. Here, it's a more prosaic, if also more criminal, route - but death features as strongly here, and it'll take every bit of Viridiana's determination to pull herself out of this mess.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and Maria Liatis's narration is excellent throughout, conveying both Viridiana's characters and, somehow, the characters of the little town itself.

Strongly recommended.

For more about the book, see the author's website here.

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