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The twisted evil of eugenics made real in the novel ‘Mexican Gothic’

(Martin Dee)
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Noemí Taboada, the heroine of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novel, “Mexican Gothic,” lives for pleasure, and in 1950s Mexico City, she can find plenty of it. She manages a whirl of cigarette smoke and cocktails, as vibrant and brittle as a butterfly, without scandalizing herself or her social class. Yet she aspires to more; though Noemí’s father dismisses her academic passions, she’s finished an undergraduate degree in anthropology.

Her plans to begin graduate school are diverted by a call from an uncle. Her cousin Catalina, married to an Englishman named Virgil Doyle whose family owned a large strip mine, now lives in a country manor known as High Place that may also be her prison; among Catalina’s melodramatic-sounding claims is that it “stinks of decay, brims with every single evil and cruel sentiment.” Noemí is sent to find out if her cousin is ill or in danger.

All the gothic tropes promised in the winking title are in place: The sacrificial virgin; the damsel in distress; the cruel, unyielding husband; the spooky, distant locale; even a Mrs. Danvers-esque chatelaine named Florence, Virgil’s sister. Let’s not forget her son, seemingly spineless Francis, and the aged, rotting, domineering paterfamilias, Howard Doyle, whose sway over the household is inexplicable — at first.

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But Moreno-Garcia isn’t just rattling off genre signifiers. The author’s postcolonial spin on the gothic tradition evokes the usual suspects: Daphne du Maurier, Emily Brontë, Mary Shelley, even Anne Radcliffe. Like those authors, Moreno-Garcia works in a tradition in which chills and thrills tap into elemental cultural fears — runaway science, carnal passion. But to these she adds a more politically inflected horror, both ancient and timely: A racist will to power.

Cousin Catalina presents initially as a Victorian-style hypochondriac, whose illness might be “the vapors” compounded by an unhealthy dependence on a tincture procured from the nearby village. Moreno-Garcia writes simply in these early pages, her declarative sentences and straightforward descriptions playing against the creeping gloom.

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Whenever Noemí tries to light a cigarette, Florence stops her: it’s against the rules. Nearly everything seems to be against the rules — Howard’s rules — from nicotine to electrical lighting. The father’s creepy fiefdom exudes Britain’s imperialist history as well as its literary traditions. The house is “absolutely Victorian in construction, with its broken shingles, elaborate ornamentation, and dirty bay windows”; completing the portrait are a vast collection of silver plates and vessels and a cloying wine served nightly.

(lambada / Getty Images)

Moreno-Garcia’s previous novels have ranged widely: a fantasy based on Mayan lore (“Gods of Jade and Shadow”); a narco vampire horror (“Certain Dark Things”); the story of a magical, decade-hopping mixtape (“Signal to Noise”). And here she is up to far more than a country-house locked-room chiller. At night, Noemí succumbs to strange, lucid dreams, bouts of sleepwalking and erotic pangs for Virgil, whom she finds repellent by the light of day.

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This gothic amalgam of repulsion and desire adheres especially to the family’s mysterious symbol: a snake circling around to swallow its own tail. Many readers will recognize before Noemí does that this is the classical ouroboros, a concept originating in ancient Egypt and used by many early cultures to signify the cycle of death and rebirth. Over the millennia it’s come to signify other things too, including fertility, self-cannibalism and infinity, but even a reader who has never encountered the scaly symbol will feel a shiver on encountering it in High Place time and again. On carpets and furnishings and even in stained glass, its “One is All” motto recalls Tolkien’s menacing “ring to rule them all.”

A closed circle can also signal a closed family — or a self-limiting gene pool. Just as Shelley’s “Frankenstein” expressed the fear of science unleashed, Moreno-Garcia is plumbing the farthest reaches of another repellant and yet (to many) distressingly alluring cultural force. Howard Doyle believes strongly in eugenics.

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This patriarch’s opinions take hold of him physically. He retreats to his room, and for good reason: When Noemí is brought in to see him, she finds a sick, gasping creature covered with open sores that reek of spoiled fruit. Catalina’s descriptions weren’t so hyperbolic after all; nor was her own condition, which seems to be deteriorating. By the time Noemí learns the family’s deepest secrets, she’s a part of them, a player in their scheme to better the Doyles forevermore.

Mexico has a fraught history with eugenics, which flourished after the Revolution of the early 20th century. As in other Latin-American countries, eugenics in Mexico was weaponized to encourage the procreation of the “fit” in order to rebuild the post-war population. Moreno-Garcia somewhat muddles this history, which is her right as a novelist, adding layers of meaning that highlight the clash between colonial powers and a nation struggling to come into its own. Noemí finds journals and papers about eugenics in Howard’s library, and reads a marked passage about the “impulsive temperament” of “the half-breed mestizo.” She throws it in the trash.

Sometimes I longed for more about this piece of Mexico’s past, a slightly more direct reckoning with the history. Yet Moreno-Garcia aims not just to edify but to thrill. Readers will cheer as Noemí fights off the nasty Doyles, gasp as they pull her back in. Writing about “Mexican Gothic” without spoiling it isn’t easy, because the author plants clues along the way, which might ruin her fabulous, freaky, one-of-a-kind denouément. Suffice it to say that Noemí and Francis must battle a variety of demons in confronting the origin of the Doyle family power — demons that evoke both Mexican and English tropes, from silver heirlooms to Mayan legends and mycological hallucinations of all kinds.

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By the time readers have tiptoed and reeled in Noemí’s well-heeled shoes, the turn from mannered mystery to twisted horror will seem as inevitable as the nightmare logic of a Grimm fairy tale. Yet “Mexican Gothic” has an ending that turns Western fairy tales upside down. In the process of surprising us one last time, Moreno-Garcia proves that it’s possible to create a believable female protagonist who defies not just the Doyles but the patriarchy of her time — the more polite eugenics of family that didn’t traffic in serpent symbols or dark rites — to fight for what she knows is a more righteous future.

Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

Mexican Gothic
Sylvia Moreno-Garcia
Del Rey: 320 pages, $27

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