Review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemí’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

Mexican Gothic is a sublime work of post-colonial gothic, not at all comfortable or comforting, but beautifully rendered all the same. It’s a story that unsettled me so effectively I found myself, on more than one occasion, helplessly desperate to claw my way out of my reading experience, to put a merciful distance between me and the words and the bleak and stifling horror that lies within. And at the same time, I couldn’t. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. Because, like any terrible enchantment, Mexican Gothic is a book that compels.

In Mexican Gothic, Moreno-Garcia uses the familiar trappings of the Gothic genre—a house atop the hill, enshrouded in a brew of dark mist, a gently malevolent proprietor, beautiful but cold as a moonbeam, an entrapped woman, once uncontainable and full of life, growing frail as the shaft of a feather, and a looming dread, threatening to press everyone inside softly and heavily to the ground—but makes ample room to address and interrogate where the genre’s limitations exist and the forces that inform them, showing the reader something viciously, vividly new.

The project of the novel underneath the poignant horror is to criticize racism, colonization, class, and abuse. It’s a reckoning with history, and a return to the past, like following a path of blood, or the pulse of a still-aching wound—and it makes for a sharp and vital undercurrent to the eerie and haunting atmosphere.

Through her lucid and eerily sure-footed prose, Moreno-Garcia sinks the reader into a shadow-steeped, fog-drenched world where reality is turned slippery and slick and the past drags on like a nightmare. Her body horror is splashed out in blunt and nauseous detail, and the steady accretion of apprehension is so oppressively potent you can almost feel the watchful, thrumming presence of High Place clawing at your back.

“It wasn’t made for love, the house.”
“Any place is made for love,” she protested.
“Not this place and not us. You look back two, three generations, as far as you can. You won’t find love. We are incapable of such a thing.”

Speaking of, the novel’s setting—High Place—functions as a character in and of itself, so present and embodied and awakened. It’s the home of the eugenics-obsessed Doyle family whose pockets were made rich with gold the labor of Indigenous workers had put there—but it is a perverse imitation of a home: it is a place where silence yawns like a chasm, cavernous and echoing. A place that is both corrupt and corrupting, a snake devouring its own tail. A place consumed by a wrongness so old and so pervasive that it never truly leaves such places. It is embedded in the mold-covered wallpaper, wedged into the supports of the house, needled into every woundlike crevice, humming darkly inside the walls and in the places no one ever saw.

This wrongness is as deep-running as roots, spreading through generations like a species of fungus: the result of an endless, unbroken history of brown dreams wrecked and swallowed and devoured for the sake of white people’s wellness, of brown bodies poked and prodded for the innumerable ways in which they could be serviceably consumed, a relentless and hideous abrasion of dignity that is not unfamiliar to many people of color everywhere.

The horror in Mexican Gothic is so poignant, so stark and oppressively bleak precisely because it is familiar. It’s racism and xenophobia and white supremacy recast as eldritch nastiness. Strip it of that—of the corrupting illness and the dreams choked with dreadful desire and all the things that lurk deep inside, sleepless and eager to have a go—and it’s real, and it’s vicious and brutally jolting in its sheer, inexorable reality.

Horror, as a genre, offers a dim sanctuary: we read horror to escape, to let ourselves feel and exist through the shock and distress and crawling dread, secure in the knowledge that none of it is real, and that we are firmly in control. But there is no relief in waking up from this novel—this is the thing that exists outside your door, darkly reflective on the page, and you can’t escape it.

“There’re heavy places. Places where the air itself is heavy because an evil weighs it down. Sometimes it’s a death, could be it’s something else, but the bad air, it’ll get into your body and it’ll nestle there and weigh you down. That’s what’s wrong with the Doyles of High Place.”

One other triumphant aspect of this novel that I want to talk about lies with its protagonist, Noemí Taboada.

The protagonist of Mexican Gothic is no one’s damsel in distress, swooning prettily on a lover’s arm. Noemí Taboada is a bold, capable, and carelessly curious socialite hunting fun and living life at full blast in 1950s Mexico. She is a scintillating study in multidimensionally: Noemí can be as sweet as candied almonds, and she can be as sharp and tart as a lemon, and her doggedness in the pursuit of life’s capricious pleasures—fine gowns, fine parties, and fine cigarettes—are matched only by her determination to earn a Master’s degree in anthropology. Noemí has a satisfying vehemence to her, edged with bitter resentment against a world that wants to punish her for her ambition, for the sin of hunger. Because a hungry woman is dangerous: she is undutiful and unpliable and does not accept nor submit to intimidation, humiliation, or exotification. A hungry woman is entirely her own person, answerable to herself, and therefore she is considered “a bitch, and a bitch can hardly do anything: all avenues are closed to her.

I liked Noemí so much, and rooted for her so feverishly. She is a refreshing protagonist, and a colossally vital one. The author renders her voice as permeable as sand, keeping us pressed close to her mind, feeling the raw edges of her anxiety and the whip-crack urgency of her desperation with a piercing keenness. As a result, the gaslighting and the tender manipulation threaded through the quiet lines of Mexican Gothic—and which Noemí is subject to—become as dreadfully effective as the body horror. The Doyle’s persecution of Noemí—deliberate, unyielding, and sadistic—sought to wear at her sanity like water against stone, to shrink her down to a pliable and docile facsimile of her cousin, and it was so utterly convincing I found myself sweating a little, squirming in my seat in profound discomfort. Even worse, I felt my own certainties unraveling like a moth-chewed cloth, right alongside Noemí’s. It was profoundly chilling, and I was chilled by it, but I was also impressed. Impressed at the author’s inerrant ability to twist her reader’s feelings like a bit of ribbon, to entrap and tantalize and wrong-foot, to show you all the workings and still make you fall headlong into that shiny trap.

I resurfaced from Mexican Gothic feeling both exhilarated and exhausted with words, sighing with the horrified relief of a hundred pages’ worth of held breath finally expelled, but unable to shake off this novel for days afterwards. This is what I’ve come to recognize as the gorgeous marker of a well-told story: wonderful and terrible and, like a childhood memory, impossible to escape. Highly recommended!

CWs: racism, incest, cannibalism, attempted rape, child death, descriptions of gore and body horror.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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