Monday, August 24, 2020

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

 Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This book certainly qualifies. I’m not really into horror books, but it has been fun to read some classics as part of our club, and discover new books as well. 


This one certainly qualifies as new. When we originally decided to read it, it wasn’t yet published. 


Mexican Gothic borrows heavily from a whole plethora of horror novels, from Jane Eyre to The Haunting of Hill House. It would take too much time to mention all of them, but they are literally everywhere in the book. 


The basic idea is this: young socialite Noemi is dispatched by her father to investigate a cryptic letter from her cousin Catalina, who has just married a mysterious Englishman. Well, he and his family are English, but have lived in Mexico for generations, running a now-defunct silver mine. They all live in this creepy old house on a hilltop, named High Place (and yes, there is religious meaning to that), which is moldy and creepy and all. Oh, and there are these snakes eating their tails decorating everything. 


The “Ouroboros” is an ancient symbol, dating back at least 4000 years to the ancient Egyptians. It symbolizes the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, as well as fertility and the transmigration of souls. All of which are in the book in some form or another. The other symbol freely used is the Latin phrase Et verbum caro factum est, “The Word became flesh.” This happens rather literally, although you will have to read the book to find out. 


Obviously, Catalina sounds crazy when she describes the vivid nightmares she is having, and the ghosts which inhabit the house. But, this being horror, we know that they are real in some way. Because of the nature of the book, I won’t spoil things. I mean, other than the things that are such tropes you know will happen. Obviously, this family has a Dark Secret™. The house is problematic, and not just because it is old. Gross stuff will happen. Noemi will fall for the young man of the household. And things will get exciting at the end. 


Now that that is out of the way, here are some thoughts on the book itself. I found the “Mexican” part of this book to be fascinating. My mom grew up in Mexico as a missionary kid, and I had heard from her about the social dynamics between those of European descent, the Mestizo, and native tribes. That’s one of the things that right wingers here in the US like to ignore about Latin America: in most cases, it is still the European colonizers in power, with the native Americans at the bottom of the social hierarchy. That dynamic is behind a lot of the problems Latin America struggles with. (And that’s before you get to international issues of trade and debt and so on.) Two entire continents share a caste system with the descendents of Europeans at the top. 


So, in this story, the creepy “foreigners,” the Doyles, are English, which is an interesting twist on the trope. They are mostly outside of the social dynamic altogether. Noemi and Catalina are Mestizo and wealthy, but not quite upper class - they still work for a living in their families. The upper class doesn’t really come into this book, as the Doyles are true outsiders: they never learn Spanish, and have imported virtually everything from England including the soil for the garden. Lower level English servants are bilingual, and supervised the impoverished mine workers back when the mine was running. The workers, of course, were typically the lowest caste. Moreno-Garcia does portray the social dynamics well, I think, as well as a certain kind of upper-middle-class society. 


Connected with this is the obsession the Doyles have with eugenics and "racial purity," which leads to catastrophic inbreeding followed by the need to bring "new blood" into the family. Moreno-Garcia gets some definite digs in at the racist history of "brown people are more physically sturdy than whites."


There are some flaws to the book. First, the ending seemed a bit rushed.  Some things were hinted at earlier, and then not quite explained clearly at the end. I liked the ambiguity and ambivalence of the conclusion, however. Second, as my wife pointed out, the language of the characters is anachronistic. The book is set in the 1950s, but the characters often talk like 21st Century people. Likewise, the novel is feminist in a modern way. It isn’t surprising that there are feminist characters - there have always been feminists - but that they think and talk in a 21st Century way about it. 


The other thing that I found kind of peculiar is that the foundational reality of the plot seems really familiar to me. I am pretty sure that it was used in a science fiction short story I read back in my teens. Maybe by Asimov? Maybe from an anthology my brother had? I have had zero success in finding it, but I do remember reading it back in the day. It seems unlikely that Moreno-Garcia consciously borrowed it from that source, although it is possible given the homages to so many other books, but it was a weird coincidence. 


I didn't realize it at the time of our discussion, but in looking up some stuff for this post, I discovered that Moreno-Garcia patterned the setting after a real town in the mountains of Mexico, complete with English cemetery and defunct mine. 


I also should mention that the main character is rather likeable and interesting, which does a lot to carry the book. The general consensus of our club was that it was an enjoyable light read - a perfect summer or vacation book. (Although maybe not so good to read during a pandemic - wondering if you will ever leave the house is a bit too close to home for many.) If you like horror, this is a worthy book in that genre, and even someone like me enjoyed reading it. 



 Hey, some music: my favorite use of Verbum Caro Factum Est







Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 


The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Circe by Madeline Miller

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Calypso by David Sedaris

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

There There by Tommy Orange

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Educated by Tara Westover

Stiff by Mary Roach

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Artemis by Andy Weir

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore



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