Call me dramatic but I swear this is true – it was a dark and stormy night and when I sat down to read Mexican Gothic, wine glass in hand and candles burning merrily on my altar. Captivating in the truest sense of the word, I could not help but be charmed by Noemí, our determined protagonist. On a surface level the narration tries to convince the reader that Noemí is concerned primarily with boys and parties, that she is flighty and flirtatious. And yet if one reads closely, you will notice that her flighty nature is exemplified by her repeatedly changing academic fields in university – all of which she excelled at, being smart and cunning as she is. Our story starts in 1950s Mexico City with Noemí’s father sending her off on a mysterious mission to a manor house just outside the small mountain town of El Triunfo. He tasks her with investigating the living conditions of her recently wedded cousin, who recently wrote him a very disturbing letter and requested Noemí specifically. Noemí’s reluctance to go is due to missing classes, and she extracts a promise that she will be allowed to complete a master’s degree in anthropology – demanding that said permission be put in writing – before she goes off.
As it turns out, Noemí’s academic dedication, both in studying anthropology and her skill with the English language, turn out quite useful as she visits her cousin Catalina. The family that Catalina married into, the Doyle’s, are English. So English, in fact, that Catalina’s father-in-law brought English soil to El Triunfo when he settled there to build High Place – the Victorian manor that Catalina now calls home – and oversee the nearby silver mine. Once Noemí arrives at High Place the novel’s genre as Gothic is solidified in meta-format by Noemí’s observation that her bed “looks like something out of a Gothic tale.” This is only further confirmed by Noemí musing that High Place would have greatly appealed to Catalina, her favorite novels being the Gothic classics Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. One of the most exquisite parts of Mexican Gothic is how author Silvia Moreno-Garcia slips in so many references to other works – you can only imagine my delight when Catalina requests that Noemí read her Sor Juana’s famous poem ‘Foolish Men’, supposedly because it is her favorite poem in her favorite book of poetry, but serving a dual purpose of passing along a secret note.
And throughout the book secrecy seems to be the lifeblood of High Place. Virgil, Catalina’s husband, cycles between obstinate and genial in his interactions with Noemí, with an undercurrent of unbidden seduction. Virgil’s father, Howard, a leering and lecherous old man who believes strongly in eugenics, and whose pained moans from an old injury fill the house at night, the acoustics carried through the walls. Howard’s plethora of racist views are another point of tension for Noemí, as she is obliged to converse with him peaceably despite how degrading his speech is. Perhaps one of the largest obstacles for Noemí is Florence, Virgil’s aunt and Howard’s niece, who runs the household and is a thorn in Noemí’s side from the moment she gets there, seeing her as an enormous imposition and unfit for their way of life. The worst part about Noemí, for Florence, is the only good thing about Noemí’s experience, her relationship with Francis, Florence’s son, and Virgil’s cousin.
Francis is an interesting character, because as someone being pulled in a multitude of different directions we as readers never really know what side of the equation he is on, and for the most part Francis doesn’t really seem to know what side of the equation he is on either. I wasn’t quite sure at first whether that was a deficiency in his character presentation from a writing standpoint, but by the end of the novel I realized that there had been seeds planted all along, and Frances actually shows a decent amount of growth throughout the novel, though I think that there is still a lot to unpack with him that I would have liked to see him have a send off that didn’t leave so much in the air from an emotional standpoint.
The real power in this novel, though, is Noemí and Catalina’s relationship, and the bonds of sisterhood and family they share. Noemí shines as a character and is probably one of my favorite people that I have read, in all her complex glory. I think my favorite thing about Mexican Gothic is that Noemí never breaks and hardly bends. There are points at which she makes mistakes, or she is trapped in a corner, but she never stops looking for a way out or to make things right. At the same time, Noemí is patient. She knows when she has lost a battle and needs to find another way to win the war. That she can do so when so many obstacles are in her way crystallizes her in my hall of fame of badass protagonists.
CW warnings: violence, attempted rape, rape, homicide, suicide, incest, imprisonment, exploitation
Note: Going forward, I now incorporate explicit content warnings into my reviews for books that have particularly visceral content. If you have read a book that I have reviewed and you believe it needs a CW please contact me and I will add one to said review.