One of the most pleasurable threads running through Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is that the book’s heroine, Noemí Taboada, can be in the throes of spooky secrets and acutely in danger and still take a moment to consider her outfit.
For example: “Noemí changed into a polka-dot day dress with a square neck. She had misplaced the matching bolero jacket and really she ought to have been wearing gloves with it, but their location being what it was, it was not as if a little faux pas like that would be noticed and make it into the society pages.”
Or: “Noemí applied lipstick and lined her eyes with a little black pencil. She knew her large, dark eyes and her generous lips were her greatest assets, and she used them to excellent effect. She took her time going through her clothes and picked a purple acetate taffeta dress with a full pleated skirt. It was too fine to be worn as a day dress—she had rung in 1950 in a similar outfit eight months before—but then she tended toward opulence. Besides, she wanted to defy the gloom around her. She decided that this way her exploration of the house would be more entertaining.”
Or: “It was cold, so she put on her long-sleeved plaid dress with the Peter Pan collar and the matching white cuffs. It was warm enough, even if she had never quite favored plaid. She couldn’t even remember why she’d packed it, but she was glad she had.”
I mention this not because Mexican Gothic is a tour-de-force of 1950s fashion wrapped up in a pretty bow of atmospheric horror, but because these utterly delightful episodes feel so authentic to Noemí, a determined and more-than-capable heroine who just happens to also care about looking good. And I absolutely loved her for it.
Mexican Gothic starts with many of the same trappings of the classic gothic novel. Noemí’s father gets word that her cousin, Catalina, who recently married the proud but broke Virgil, is faring poorly at her new home. He asks Noemí to go check on Catalina to see if the new wife is truly in dire straits or if she’s merely being hysterical—there’s no point, he says, in submitting to the scandal of a divorce unless Virgil is truly a brute. Noemí declines until her father makes her a tantalizing offer: sort the situation out and he will let her go to the National University, rather than the Feminine University of Mexico to which she has limited.
Noemí wants a master’s degree and getting it at National University would be a dream come true. How much trouble could the trip to visit Catalina be with that kind of prize waiting at the end?
She leaves Mexico City for the boondocks and runs into complications almost immediately, chiefly in the form of Virgil and the rest of the limited population of the family manor, High Place. Catalina is so ill, Noemí is told, that she cannot receive visitors except for Virgil’s aunt, Florence, and the strange Dr. Campbell. Yet when Noemí finally does get to see her cousin, Catalina appears to be fine—more or less.
But Noemí is not so easily dissuaded, not with the eerie atmosphere of the house closing in around them and the promise of National University when she returns home. So she presses on. But soon she, too, begins to feel ill. She sees things that might not be there; she dreams of strange and wicked things that seem to tell her things she could not possibly know on her own. And when the mystery is finally revealed, it’s nothing that she—or the reader—could have ever predicted.
This is, clearly, a dark book (surprise, surprise). The secrets Noemí finds out before uncovering the ultimate mystery of High Place include mass deaths of workers in a mine owned by Virgil’s family and a multi-murder/suicide at the hands of one of the family members that isn’t all that it seems. There’s the increasing threat of sexual assault; there’s prolonged talk of eugenics. And the, of course, there’s the more literal horror lurking beneath it all, not to mention and the proverbial madwoman in the attic (except this one’s [spoiler redacted] and [spoiler redacted]). But it also beckons you onward, page by page, until you understand just how Catalina—and perhaps Noemí—could get trapped in High Place’s walls.
In fiction, there’s a lot of talk about what makes a good character, or what makes a character likeable. I’m not sure Noemí is likeable, per se. She’s forceful; she clearly doesn’t care what anyone thinks, including the reader. She’s a little selfish and more than a little vain. If I were looking at her as a character, I think I would have struggled to follow her. It’s good, then, that Noemí doesn’t feel like a character at all, but a person who knows her mind and is determined to cut through layers of obfuscation and the familial equivalent of red tape to get it. And as that person, I loved her. I cheered for her. I leaned away from the book when she made contentious choices, and hunched over closer when the strange phenomenon within the house started to affect her.
From the moment I cracked the book open on a weekend morning to when I reached The End far too late at night, I could not take my eyes away from Noemí or High Place. I wouldn’t be surprised if you couldn’t, either.
(And when you do read Mexican Gothic, don’t miss out on this playlist courtesy of Moreno-Garcia and Random House.)