Mexican Gothic: breathe in deeply

Book cover: Mexican Gothic - Silvia Moreno-GarciaA remote house in the mountains. A reclusive family who live by strict rules. A dark history of disease and murder. Can flighty socialite Noemí pierce the stifling gloom of High Place – and what secrets will she find if she does?

A new Silvia Moreno-Garcia novel is always an event in my reading calendar. I never know what to expect: each is so deliciously different to the other. Even if they don’t necessarily appeal on paper, the elegant execution almost always wins me over. But Mexican Gothic arrived with a concept that had me at hello – a Gothic horror set in the 50s – and it sank me with its opening chapters.

Meet Noemí Taboada: pretty, clever, self-absorbed. She’s a calculated actress, an expert manipulator of gauche young men and she really likes getting her own way. Her father would like to see her settle down (just not with that young man. Or that one); she wants to go to the National University and study anthropology. He might take her aspirations more seriously if they didn’t change as often as the young man of the moment.

At 22, you shouldn’t have to make your mind up about everything

Fair to say that Mexican Gothic is likely to sink or swim based on your response to Noemí. Like many of Moreno-Garcia’s heroines, she’s not always likeable, but she’s determined and that’s a quality I prize highly (I also love debutantes who weaponise their femininity in terrifying situations). I can imagine her navigating the waters of the Mexico City social scene, lithe and assured (and quite possibly monstrous, objectively – she’s so careless of other people); part of the joy of Mexican Gothic is that she’s entirely out of her depth.

It’s not the only thing I took joy in. Moreno-Garcia wears her inspirations proudly: cousin Catalina is an orphan, who grew up telling Noemí fairytales and reading the Brontës. Catalina is a hopeless romantic: of course she fell for the handsome Englishman with the tragic family history and a remote estate decaying in the mountains. Why yes, it does look an awful lot like he married her for her money. And now she thinks Virgil Doyle is trying to poison her, and Noemí’s father can’t decide if Catalina’s got psychological problems or a bad case of melodrama.

…which brings us to my next delight: Mexican Gothic isn’t so much about smashing the patriarchy as uprooting it. It shows its colours in Mr Taboada’s initial willingness to dismiss Catalina’s fears; in Howard Doyle’s attitude to women as breeding stock; in Virgil’s appraising gaze and suggestive comments; in Florence Doyle’s complicit misogyny. This is a tale of men who believe their needs come first, and of the women who enable and defy them.

Guess which Noemí is.

It is also unapologetically creepy. High Place is a crumbling mansion up in the mountains, just about accessible if the weather is dry and a driver sufficiently determined. Cold, damp and badly lit, it is a house of dark corridors and creeping mildew, its grounds covered in mushrooms. Needless to say, it barely has hot water, let alone a telephone – although it does have its own cemetery out the back…

Yes, ALL my reading notes are the side-eye emoji 👀

This is a book for readers who love yelling it’s behind you. Moreno-Garcia’s triumph is in cheekily feeding you enough clues to be quite, quite certain this is a Gothic horror and in making Noemí such a thoroughly modern girl that – while she is suspicious of the Doyles and their motivations – it never occurs to her. Yes, they’re rude – and racist (patriarch Howard likes to talk eugenics over dinner); and there are certainly questions about the medication Catalina is being dosed with – but there’s nothing mysterious going on. Criminal, possibly. Murderous, even. After all, murder runs in the family…

Cue an atmospheric chiller that I really didn’t want to read before bed. A quiet stroll in the cemetery becomes a disorienting moment of noises off horror in the mist. Noemí’s dreams are soon full of stalking horror: predatory men in a house made quivering, pulsating flesh. High Place is a claustrophobic hell hole where you’re forbidden to talk at dinner, but moans echo through the corridors at night – and the family insist on escorting you from one room to another ‘so you won’t get lost’.

For all its grim moments – and it repeatedly went beyond my comfort zone – I was engrossed from start to finish. Mexican Gothic uses a delightful mash-up of Gothic tropes to pass comment on modern themes: patriarchy, class, race, complicity and the difficulty of turning your back on a toxic inheritance. The result is possibly my favourite Silvia Moreno-Garcia to date – although also, perhaps, the one I will find it hardest to reread.

Content warnings (spoilers, mouse over to read): body horror, pregnancy horror, sexual assault, incest, child murder, human sacrifice, cannibalism, discussion of eugenics and white supremacy

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Mexican Gothic will be released next week by Jo Fletcher Books (UK) / Del Rey (US).