by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“It was the kind of thing she could imagine impressing her cousin: an old house atop a hill, with mist and moonlight, like an etching out of a Gothic novel. Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, those were Catalina’s sort of books.”
When her father receives a strange letter from her recently married cousin Catalina, Noemí Taboada is dispatched from Mexico City to check on her. Noemí arrives at High Place, a moldering mansion in the mountains built on the largesse of a now-defunct silver mine, to find an odd and eerie situation. High Place is like something right out of one of the gothic novels her cousin always favoured, right down to the fact that the Doyle family doctor says that Catalina has tuberculosis. Her strange letter to the Taboadas is attributed to a fever caused by her condition. Self-assured Noemí isn’t about to let herself be scared off by Catalina’s coldly enigmatic husband Virgil Doyle, nor any of the other odd members of the Doyle clan. She may even be able to use Francis, Virgil’s awkward younger cousin who has never left High Place but clearly longs for escape. As the mystery deepens, not only may Noemí be unable to extract Catalina from High Place, but she may also find herself trapped there as well.
The Doyles are an English family that built their fortune tossing Mexican labourers into the rapacious maw of their silver mine before losing almost all of it during Mexican Revolution. Some thirty years later, the last vestiges of the Doyle family live cloistered away in High Place under the iron dictates of their dying patriarch, Howard Doyle, while Catalina’s husband Virgil stands poised to inherit. The family rarely leaves the house, and never goes to town, where strange rumours about them circulate among the local population that once provided the labour for their now-crumbling estate. The series of disasters that reduced them to their present circumstances remains shrouded in mystery.
Mexican Gothic is an eerie post-colonial horror novel set in rural 1950s Mexico. Noemí grew up in the city, with all the arts, culture and education that entails. But history still casts a long shadow over her country, and in particular the legacy of colonialism touches everything. The huge but rotting library at High Place stands as a symbol of the Doyles’ lack of interest in real knowledge, favouring instead the pseudoscience of eugenics. While Noemí studies and debates the latest in anthropology at the university, the Doyles cling to eugenics even as their supposedly superior bloodline dwindles, blaming their falling fortunes on the Revolution and the quest for Mexican independence. Only Francis, with his interest in mycology, shows any real inclination for the life of the mind.
For the first fifth of the novel, High Place is disturbing but in a relatively mundane way. Virgil is lecherous, and his father openly racist. Florence openly aids and abets them in this behaviour. Mexican Gothic is layered with history, biology, anthropology, and Moreno-Garcia’s usual dab hand for incorporating the traditions of the genre she is working in while also making it her own. As the novel progresses, the atmospheric horror ramps up steadily even as the Doyles try to keep a polite English façade on their efforts to control Catalina and manipulate Noemí. The quagmire grows deeper as Noemí becomes determined to save not just her cousin, but also Francis, the only Spanish-speaking member of the Doyle household, a sad young man who has spent his short life trapped at High Place under the thumb of his more assertive family members.
Mexican Gothic will be defended by BookTok content creator Tasnim Geedi on Canada Reads 2023, set to air March 27-30 on CBC. The theme this year is one book to shift your perspective.
“This is not just a story about dark family secrets but the lingering effects of colonialism. And Silvia does not waste a single sentence to immerse you in this chilling story, which will have you questioning everybody, including yourself.” -Tasnim Geedi
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