A Review of Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Del Rey/Random House, 2020
Mexican Gothic is a sharp, glittering page-turner — and it is absolutely, wonderfully scary. But it’s something else, too — first and foremost, it’s a novel at the crest of the new wave of horror. But it’s also a brilliant literary work, with characters as complex as Erdrich’s, and themes running as deep as any of Morrison’s.
What also matters with Gothic is that it is sitting right at the apex of an American tipping point. With over 60 million people in the United States of Latinx heritage — and, over 41% of them with some college experience, ignoring the Latinx reading population in this country has been sheer folly when it comes to the publishing industry. Additionally, we are also right on the cusp of an election that is contentious, to say the least — with a president known for countless grotesque statements about folks of Latinx descent — and outright genocidal actions, when it comes to Latinx people on the border.
“Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination,” — author of over seven speculative novels (now, with her current novel Dangerous Eagerness under contract), editor of a number of anthologies, and winner of the World Fantasy Award and the Copper Cylinder Award, it’s not as if Moreno-Garcia’s accolades aren’t already piled right up to her neck. But with Gothic standing on the New York Times Bestseller list for weeks on end — selling over 40,000 copies, this is Moreno-Garcia’s time.
The novel opens with socialite Noemí Taboada enjoying a costume party — the novel set in Mexico City in the 50’s. Noemí’s father has called her home — he’s very concerned about a letter he’s received from her cousin, Catalina. Catalina has impetuously married Virgil Doyle — who, along with his less charming brother Francis, have inherited a long-dead silver mine, built on Indigenous labor. Noemí reluctantly agrees to go to High Place where Catalina lives with Virgil — a decaying mansion in a remote villa. The villa is wonderfully foggy, the whole atmosphere Gothic, and Noemí begins to unravel the mystery of why Catalina has lost her mind, all while tormented by horrible dreams and visions — though Virgil’s brother provides a lifeline into sanity — and, a romantic interest of the kind that Noemí the brainy but non-committal dilettante has never encountered.
The prose is crisp, and the structure of the novel, while not the muscle-bound style typical of a thriller or mystery for example — still pulls you forward, with each page making you more and more attached to each character, their depths, their darknesses.
Noemí for example isn’t just pretty — she’s funny, smart, sarcastic, and appealingly noirishly flamboyant and flirtatious — piercing through the inbred veil of the Doyle family, even if what is at the heart of it, is something too horrifying to entangle quickly.
Though reviews have gotten to parts of what makes this novel so groundbreaking, it’s precisely what they’ve missed that makes it literary. In one scene, Noemí is walking through the family graveyard, and she comes across Francis Doyle — the less charming, but all the more disarming for it, romantic interest of the main character. When she sees that he is picking mushrooms — she notes, “My grandmother was Mazatec, and the Mazatec ingest similarly mushrooms during ceremonies.” Though seemingly inconsequential, this is central to the deeper theme of the novel.
Without entirely spoiling the final, climactic thrust — this statement belies its most central, yet covert, theme. The mushroom that Francis is picking is something that has allowed his family a form of immortality — but it is precisely why they have committed incest, in order to keep the bloodline that can withstand and prosper from the mushroom — alive. It is also why they have an interest in Noemí and her cousin — they’re new blood, but blood that is also able to utilize the qualities of the rare mushroom. But it is precisely this background that makes Noemí able to not only withstand the forces that seek to absorb — to assimilate her, but to beat them.
Rich, and subversive on every level, Mexican Gothic is a killer of a novel, and one that will be taught in college classrooms for generations.
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