by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Del Rey Books, 2021
Reviewed by Ariana Duckett
Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, creates a fresh, discernible genre through the thicket of her florid prose – feminist horror – which uplifts the perspectives of Latin American women in postcolonial eras whilst navigating the barriers set by male and white counterparts.
Noemí Taboada is a college-educated, Indigenous-Mexican woman in the 1950s whose glamorous social life is used against her by her father, Leocadio, as a reason for her not to continue her education and receive the master’s degree in anthropology that she desires. She already has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, which is only supposed to be used as a feature to make her more interesting to her future husband: “Noemí’s father said she cared too much about her looks and parties to take school seriously, as if a woman could not do two things at once.” She strives to join the workforce and swears to Leocadio that her socialite status does not subtract from her desire for education. Amidst the father-daughter conflict, she receives a letter from her cousin, Catalina, claiming her husband, Virgil Doyle, is going to kill her and she needs Noemí’s immediate help to stop him. Leocadio insists that she answer the call to action, and says that he will help fund her master’s degree if she goes. The novel quickly jumps into the rural mountains enclosing El Triunfo, the town in which Catalina lives with her husband and his family. Noemí meets members of his family, and their colonialist racism throbs through the pages as fast as Noemí tries to learn everything she can about the strange house, her cousin’s fearful attitude, and the patriarch, Howard Doyle, who invisibly runs the house’s operations from his bedroom.
Moreno-Garcia writes terror with grace and fragility. Her eloquence does not work against her purpose, which is clear to her. Moreno-Garcia is the Ariadne to Noemí’s Theseus, guiding her through her labyrinthine mystery.
Noemí meets several members of the Doyle family (who request that she speak only English in their household). She befriends Francis, one of Virgil’s cousins, and ominous things start to happen in the village and in her mind. She tries to pick up medicine from a local healer for Catalina, which results in Catalina experiencing a seizure. Noemí dreams of a glowing golden woman who warns her to stay strong and keep going, to save herself. At one point, she is told “just because there are no ghosts it doesn’t mean you can’t be haunted.” Everything about the house, and its past, is haunting, even terrorizing. Francis is the only family member willing to break the cycle of his family’s abuse of and hunger for power, and helps her navigate the family’s secrets, even if it puts his position in the household in danger.
When Noemí attempts to escape, she is informed that she is unable to due to a magical plant surrounding the house, which weakens her if she tries to leave. Without spoiling the story, this magical plant grants the Doyle family a supernatural ability with many unethical sacrifices required to maintain their power. The magic weakens based on genetics so that incest is required to keep their ability strong, but Noemí’s fresh genes can help the family strengthen their ability, too.
Noemí is not just fighting Catalina’s husband, but his family, his house, and his father’s colonialist past. The family’s use of a local plant to help themselves also hints at the exploitation of nature and the climate crisis brought on by white settlers deciding they need all of the world’s inhabitants, plants and humans alike, to preserve themselves as much as possible.
Mexican Gothic meshes anthropology, feminism, and botany into the foggy, isolated village of El Triunfo. Every part of the storyline embodies a key trait Noemí does not have: compliance. She cannot comply with her father nor the Doyles. When she is told she is unable to leave because of the house’s magical power, she refuses to accept this as the sole truth, and seeks her freedom, and that of Catalina and Francis, anyway.
With its horror twist and suspenseful ending, it strays far from magical realism, a genre originating in twentieth-century Latin American literature, but which Silvia Moreno-Garcia argues is now used to incorrectly embody almost all modern Latin literature today. In an article for the New York Times called “Saying Goodbye to Magic Realism,” she argues that her work, including Mexican Gothic, has been repeatedly and wrongly defined as magical realism. Moreno-Garcia writes that “magic realism once referred to the literary style of a loosely connected group of Latin American authors who penned works some 60 years ago, but in the English-speaking world, the term has become synonymous with Latin American writing in general. Picture every work by a British writer being called ‘Austenesque’ today, and you get an idea of this phenomenon.” Comparing the grouping of Latin literature to that of British literature seems almost comical due to the Doyle family’s heritage being British, the core leaders of colonialism, which had just barely begun to recede at the time that magical realism was blossoming. This inverse relationship underscores everything that Moreno-Garcia attempts to tell the readers: that hope cannot be fully lost when trying to change the status quo, and that the mysterious terror of the onslaught of colonialism is still being navigated by its survivors. Labeling Mexican Gothic as magical realism does not just cause a conglomerate of literature with a broad range of voices attempting to defy the modern burden of colonialism, but obscures Latin writers’ opportunities to shine brightly and individually, creating their own genres, as Silvia Moreno-Garcia has proven possible in Mexican Gothic.