Silvia Moreno-Garcia previously impressed me with both Untamed Shore and Gods of Jade and Shadow, but I think her most recent release, Mexican Gothic, is my favourite of her work yet.
Trigger warnings in place for this book include: rot/decay, eugenics, racism, gaslighting, drug overdose, sexual assault, premature/live burial, cannibalism, incest and implied suicide and CSA.
Mexican Gothic follows Noemí Taboada as she goes on a mission to rescue her cousin from a highly suspect, worrying marriage. She arrives at Catalina’s husband’s house in the wake of a distressing letter, only to meet various members of the strange Doyle family. There’s Virgil Doyle, her cousin’s husband, as well as his cousin Florence, and Florence’s strange and fragile son Francis. Ruling over them all is the sickly, eugenics-obsessed Howard Doyle, who is usually sick in bed.
Catalina talks about ghosts in the walls and being poisoned, which the family brushes off as the side-effect of tuberculosis. Still, Noemí’s smarter than that, and with Francis’s unwilling aid, works to uncover the mystery of High Place and the Doyles’s strange, twisted family.
One thing to know about this novel going in is that it is not shy. Many novels of this type would lean on eugenics, racism and sexual assault as metaphors; Moreno-Garcia disposes with that artifice without fuss, and Howard cross-examines Noemí about her mestiza and Mazatec heritage. At the dinner table. With, may I add, a lot of very demeaning and unsettling comments about how ‘dark’ she is. It’s almost funny, in a sickening way, especially since Noemí goes through some of his books later and goes from wondering if he has any calipers to measure skulls with to wondering how many he has.
The sexual assault is even blunter. The Doyle family sees women as tools – baby-makers and products to be delivered to their heirs – and the sexism of the fifties is examined throughout the book. It’s even more relevant that Noemí is a debutante from a high-class family; she has more freedom than many, but still finds herself trapped at every turn. She’s told off a number of times for being so “free-willed”, even called “filth” by Florence, the family matriarch, and even her own father admits she’s flighty. Yet, she’s the heroine of the novel, bold out of both fear and spite.
Mexican Gothic is an incredible modern entry into the gothic horror canon – and canon is where it belongs – that delivers even more on Gothicism’s themes for disposing with its standard trappings. The house is not some old British mansion; it’s a colonial house with a colonial British family, built upon a mine that consumed its (mostly Mexican) workers with plague and almost literally upon their bodies. The despairing, slowly driven insane wife is not simply tormented alone and in pain – it’s her cousin who comes for her. And all through it is the same horror of the domestic, the horror within a family, that makes Gothicism so enduring.
If you enjoyed Mexican Gothic, you may enjoy these books as well (and vice versa, if you’re not sure whether or not Mexican Gothic is your thing!) – White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, and The Changeling by Victor LaValle. Additionally, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Shutter Island (2010) may be of interest, although the former is a short story rather than a novel, and the latter is a film.