Jo Fletcher Books, 30 June 2020
Available as: HB, 301pp, e
Read as: e-copy via NetGalley
I'm grateful to Milly at Jo Fletcher Books for an advance e-copy of Mexican Gothic via NetGalley and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of the authors whose next book I always look forward to. Apart from anything else she's so versatile - this year we've already had an excellent Mexican noir from her (Untamed Shore), while last year saw her previous novel for Jo Fletcher Books, the 1920s Mexican-set fantasy Gods of Jade and Shadow (which you should read, if you haven't already).
Now we have - well, the title says it all, Mexican Gothic.
Mexico City, 1950. A young socialite, Noemí Taboada, is summoned from the latest party by her father and instructed to sort out a tricky family problem. Recently married cousin Catalina is unwell, and Naomí's father - who is also Catalina's guardian - wants Naomí to investigate. I loved the way Moreno-Garcia establishes both Naomí's self-possession - she is a confident young woman who knows what she wants and how to present herself to get it ('Naomí' looked a bit like Katy Juarado when she struck the right pose, and of course she knew what exact angle to strike') - and her place within wider Mexican society: a student of anthropology, in no hurry to be married (though she enjoys partying and social life, she's in no hurry to commit to any of the boys who are interested in her).
Noemí travels to the remote (and somewhat faded) town of El Triunfo outside which stands High Place, the home of the Doyle family into which Catalina has married. The Doyles are English and refuse to speak Spanish: they made their fortune mining silver, though the mine is now derelict and they have fallen on hard times (hence the alliance with Noemí's own wealthy family). This is a genuinely Gothic setting: High Place is a decayed mansion full of mouldering rooms and dust-sheeted furniture. There's a family graveyard wreathed in mist, a collection of hostile relatives - in particular matriarch Florence who present Noemí with a list of rules: no smoking, no noise, no visits to El Triunfo, limited contact with Catalina - and a series of mysteries: about the house, the family, and Catalina's physical and mental health.
There was a bit of a flavour here, I thought, of Cold Comfort Farm in the contrast between the modern young woman and the benighted Doyles, but unfortunately the inhabitants of High Place aren't to be easily reformed and the tension between them and Noemí fairly crackles. You can't miss the extent to which they cling to their Englishness: the family has been in Mexico for decades yet they doggedly speak English and maintain a Victorian outlook on life. It's easy to read this as a commentary on colonialism and post-colonialism, the source of the family's wealth having dried up and their whole purpose having been swept away by civil war and revolution even while they maintain their peculiar forms and customs, their foreignness clear in Mexico (they 'even brought European earth here').
Noemí is, as I have said, confident. She's used to getting her own way, both within her family and, as a wealthy young woman, in society more widely. ('She had experience dealing with irritating men'). Yet she may have met her match in the Doyles: older, established, arrogant and even rude in that specific way the English upper class still has, even in decay. ('You are much darker than your cousin, Miss Tabadoa'). It's clear there's a struggle for control going on here. Noemí is isolated, without allies, and doesn't have a clue what is happening. Because there is certainly something very sinister going on. As Noemí unravels the tragic family history of the Doyles, based on portraits, tombstones and fragments of stories she manages to collect in the town, it becomes clear that tragedy has followed them for generations with more than one untimely death. But how does this relate to what's happening to Cataline - and Noemí - now?
The unfolding of the story, with the creepy Gothic atmosphere growing thicker and thicker, combines with Noemí's growing doubts and fears, makes for an exciting and compulsive read. The family members present different threats, different challenges, from the haughty Florence to the monstrously unpleasant patriarch Howard to the smoother Virgil, Catalina's husband ('He was, likely, not used to being refused. But then, many men were the same.') I found myself torn between wanting Noemí to press them harder, to discover more, and fear of what might happen if she did. There's something dangerously unstable in the Doyle household with its devotion to eugenics, to taxonomical classification and to understanding the right place for every one, with its almost captive family members - younger son Francis has never travelled further than El Triunfo and seems almost hypnotically controlled by Florence and Virgil - and a history of violence gradually emerges.
While there's clearly something very wrong here, Moreno-Garcia kept me guessing almost till the end about the nature of the threat in High Place and about how that might influence a possible romance. Dark, scary, Romantic and deeply, deeply Gothic this is a remarkable book and an intense read. It's one I'd strongly recommend.
You can buy Mexican Gothic from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books, which supports local shops, Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon.
For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here - and the reviews on the other tour sites, listed on the poster below!