It’s Mexico, 1950s. Noemí Taboada receives a letter from her recently-married cousin, claiming her husband is poisoning her and that she hears voices in the walls of the dilapidated, isolated family mansion they’ve removed to. Noemí agrees to travel to the mansion, aptly named High Place, up in the hills and abandoned silver mines of Triunfo. There Noemí discovers her cousin is certainly not herself and the family she’s married into harbour sinister secrets and a murky past that she must uncover, or she may never leave the house at all.
MEXICAN GOTHIC has solidified the gothic genre as a new found love for me. I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein many years ago and just didn’t get it (looking back I fundamentally misunderstood it I think) so it wasn’t until I picked up Jeannette Ng’s dark gothic fantasy Under The Pendulum Sun last year that I read anything remotely like it again. I loved that book and I’m so grateful for it, because otherwise I wouldn’t have paid much attention to this book when it came out – and MEXICAN GOTHIC turned out to be an absolute dread-inducing delight.
Moreno-Garcia’s writing is a master class in invoking a claustrophobic, paranoid feeling in the reader’s mind, expertly mirroring Noemí’s spiral towards an increasingly sinister and surreal Stockholm Syndrome under the roof of High Place and its ageing eugenicist patriarch, Howard Doyle. The setting is just as much a character as the people in it and the writing gives the house a menacing and confining aura whose presence weighs on you throughout the story. So much so that in the brief interludes when Noemí manages to escape to visit the nearby town, I could practically feel myself breathing easier, as if I’d been almost suffocated the whole time she was stuck between the watchful gaze of the walls of High Place. Moreno-Garcia uses language in clever ways to invoke this feeling. When Noemí is walking the darkened corridors she feels she is being watched by the family portraits and Moreno-Garcia uses active verbs to make us feel it with her. This is the kind of writing that sets good writers apart from great ones; knowing how to manipulate language to invoke the feelings of your characters in the reader is something that makes me sit up and take notice.
There was a woman, her hands tightly held in her lap, her light hair pinned up, who regarded Noemí with large eyes from her picture frame.
Noemí tried to think of the house filled with the noise of children’s laughter, children playing hide and seek, children with a spinning top or ball between their hands. But she couldn’t. The house would not have allowed such a thing. The house would have demanded they spring from it fully grown.
The book is also littered with allusions to real life classics of gothic literature, including Shelley’s Frankenstein as well as Jayne Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I’ve never read Jayne Eyre, but I’m still familiar with the story and themes simply through a process of cultural osmosis and from that limited baseline I think Mexican Gothic takes a lot of inspiration from Charlotte Brontë’s social commentary on feminism, sexuality and class and updates it for the twenty-first century, yet still makes the themes relevant when the story itself is set in the 1950s. I don’t know if this was a deliberate theme of the book, but it felt to me it was saying that, despite the social advances in intervening years, women still put up with a lot of the same shit that decades of ingrained sexism has instilled in society. There’s a lot of overt sexism in the book, from Virgil Doyle pronouncing that Catalina is his wife and he decides whether she leaves High Place or not, even when her mental well being is at stake, but also a lot of subtle social interactions that highlight the myriad ways men interact with women in belittling or dismissive ways. For instance, Virgil making a slightly inapproapriate comment with sexual undertones that makes Noemí uncomfortable and yet she doesn’t say anything “because it wasn’t really that bad of a comment, a few words, and she didn’t wish to start a fight in the middle of a dark hallway over what amounted to almost, but not quite, nothing”.
I particularly liked the book’s exploration of class and how wealth and ownership is such a massive instrument for the wealthy to lever their power. The Doyle family historically owned the defunct silver mines in the hills around High Place and an important sub-plot in the family’s history is their repression of a labour strike when the miners downed tools amidst an epidemic that was killing a large proportion of the workers (seems particularly apt now, in the Covid era where some sections of workers are rediscovering their power by going on strike in protest at lack of protective equipment). This element of the story highlights the racism and white supremacy of the ruling class in post-independence Mexico. Howard Doyle is particularly overt in his racism and passion for eugenics and doesn’t mind Noemí knowing it. There’s even some dark humour in parts of the book when Noemí wonders if he keeps a pair of calipers to measure his guests’ skulls. The Doyle family are particularly hung up on the Mexican Revolution, which they lament as taking everything from them, despite their continued exploitation of Mexican workers to profit from the riches of the silver mine.
There’s a lot of great social commentary in this book and the writing is superb, but the plot and character relationships are also top notch. The slow burn unravelling of the story, the Doyle family’s sordid, shady history and Noemí’s relationship with Francis, the one seemingly-decent member of the Doyle family all weave together to tell such a compelling, eery story that on many occasions had me shuddering and mouthing oh my god at the sheer creepiness of it all. It’s paced so perfectly and I’m awed by how natural it felt that a story beginning with a young socialite leaving a party in Mexico City ended up in the utterly messed up place it did. MEXICAN GOTHIC is excellent and a solid recommendation from me.
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