I was recently chatting with a friend about how I was bored with books that are all atmosphere and pretty writing, without much actual story. (This was in relation to a book I gave up on that had the premise of a thriller but mostly involved people going on walks and thinking about things in evocative prose.) So it’s a good time for me to read Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a book that is pretty much exactly what it claims to be.
The book’s main character, Noemí Taboada, is a 1950s socialite who loves parties and flirting but dreams of becoming an anthropologist, even though her father sees little value in giving her that advanced education. But he agrees to do so if she will just go and check in on her cousin Catalina. Catalina has recently (and suddenly) married a man from a wealthy English family that built a house in the Mexican countryside and built a fortune mining silver on the property. Noemí’s father has become worried because Catalina sent a strange letter asking for help. Perhaps Noemí can figure out what’s going on.
From here, we get exactly what you’d expect. A creepy old house, a family with strict rules to follow, a mysterious illness, hints of bigger secrets. It’s all enjoyably creepy. And Moreno-Garcia does a nice job planting all the clues to what is really going on without giving away the whole story too quickly. It’s the kind of thing where when the big revelations start to happen, I would think, “Oh, I knew it had something to do with _____, but I wasn’t sure what.” or “I thought ____ must be behind this, but I didn’t know how.” That, to me, is a sign the author is playing fair without being obvious.
So, on the whole, I found this a pretty fun story. I wasn’t quite sure at the end how some of the history/mythology/magic/whatever really worked, but that could be because I was caught up enough in the suspense of the moment that I was reading quickly and missed a couple of crucial details along the way.
The main thing that kept this from being a great, great book was that I found Noemí kind of a dull heroine. She’s got all the right qualities on paper — spunkiness, intelligence, free-spiritedness, etc. — but it all ended up making her feel rather generic. Her interest in anthropology could have set her apart, but it didn’t really lead anywhere much (when it could have been crucial to the plot). The more interesting characters are from the family Catalina has married into, because they have more internal conflict. And it’s kind of a shame that the white characters are the more intriguing ones. But I suppose in Gothic fiction, the villains are often more exciting.
Anyway, it’s a solid Gothic/sensation novel pastiche. I really like the approach of taking that type of story and bringing it into new settings and cultures. Although I know Mexico has its own literary traditions that are worth delving into and building on, it’s fun to see new takes on the literary forms and traditions that I already know and love.