Del Rey, 2020
"We thought monsters and ghosts were found in books, but they're real, you know?"
It was actually the blurb that led me to preorder this novel eons ago:
"After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside, unsure what she will find. Noemí is an unlikely rescuer: She's a glamourous debutante, more suited to cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she's also tough, smart, and not afraid: not of her cousin's new English husband, a stranger who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems fascinated by Noemí, and not even of the house itself, which begins to unearth stories of violence and madness ... there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place, as Noemí discovers when she begins to unearth stories of violence and madness,"and the clincher was the back-cover blurb from author Yangsze Choo which noted that "Readers who love old houses and family secrets will devour this book..." Oh, that is so me.
Very briefly, because here to tell is to definitely spoil, we're in Mexico in the early 1950s, and when Noemí Taboada's father receives a letter from his niece Catalina, he becomes alarmed and consults his daughter. He's convinced after reading it that Catalina needs psychiatric help because of her insistence that she is being poisoned, and that "they" will not let her go. She also mentions seeing the "restless dead, these ghosts," and "fleshless things," and begs Noemí to rescue her, "For God's sake," because she cannot save herself. He wants Noemí to go to Catalina and try to decide whether or not Catalina neeeds to be moved to Mexico City and to convince her husband Virgil that it would be the smart thing to do if that is the case. In return, he will allow his somewhat "flighty" and spoiled (but hugely intelligent) daughter to enroll at the National University to study anthropology (which her dad had deemed "waste of time and unsuitable," an offer she couldn't refuse. At the same time, she wants to succeed in this mission to make a point to her father.
Her arrival at the rather isolated house known as High Place, "an old house atop a hill, with mist and moonlight, like an etching out of a Gothic novel," was not met with the warmest of welcomes by the Doyle family. People in the house insist on quiet, even at dinner where the rare family meals are generally eaten in complete silence, an atmosphere Noemí likens to "a dress lined with lead." Her first visit with the once vibrant Catalina, whom she finds somewhat fragile and not herself, is short and controlled by Florence, the niece of the head of the Doyle household, but when they next meet, Catalina reveals that the walls talk to her. She warns Noemí that there are "ghosts" and that she'll "see them eventually." It doesn't take long for Catalina's warning to become reality -- first come strange dreams, then visions of a woman "in a dress in yellowed antique lace," which intensify as time goes on, followed by sleepwalking before things get even stranger and become even more grotesque. Aside from Catalina, her only friend at High Place is Virgil's younger brother Francis, who tells her that "it's the house" that has made Catalina so miserable and that Noemí needs to leave. She will absolutely not go without her cousin, but once she realizes the secrets that High Place holds, it may be too late.
I made the mistake of starting Mexican Gothic at about 10 p.m. a few nights ago; needless to say I finished it in one sitting which meant another sleepless night. Nearly every Gothic trope there is can be found here, which made for quick turning of pages. Regular readers of Gothic novels will pick them up, and will also notice that into the familiar structure the author has woven quite a bit of social commentary, bringing out issues of class, race, inequality, and most especially the vulnerability of many women at this time, who for one reason or another find themselves trapped. As it happens, women in 1950s Mexico didn't even have the right to vote, and married women were largely under the control of their husbands; Mexican Gothic reveals the underlying strength that women command when it comes down to survival.
The combination of ever-mounting suspense, the creepy, gloomy atmosphere, the sheer villainy and the concern for the main characters that made me want to go to the end at one point to make sure things came out okay (I didn't) that kept me flipping pages should have made me love this book, but I had some issues. The day after finishing the novel, I read a review at Kirkus that kind of summed it up:
"Fans of gothic classics like Rebecca will be enthralled as long as they don't mind a heaping dose of all-out horror."While I love weird fiction and ghost stories, "a heaping dose of all-out horror" isn't quite my thing, which is what this story turned out to be. Even then, I might have been willing to overlook it had it not also been for the fact that long before we got to the horror elements I had figured out the main elements of the central plot around which this novel is built. (And just as an aside here, Mexican Gothic is not at all Du Maurier's Rebecca -- don't go there.) The basic meat and bones of what was to come were sort of telegraphed very, very early on; I even marked the spot and wrote my ideas on a post-it I'd put on the page where I guessed what was going to happen. Obviously, I couldn't have known everything, but I was so close to the mark that I ended up being somewhat disappointed. I run into this phenomenon sometimes (usually in a mystery/crime novel), and then all I can do is let the story unfold, knowing what's going to happen and waiting for things to play out, and it does not make me a happy reader.
In this case, it was more that I loved the messages delivered here but wasn't a huge fan of the delivery. I liked it, didn't love it, preferring the sort of puzzling strange stories that tend to leave me off-kilter, jittery and pondering rather than the "heaping dose of all-out horror" mentioned above. However, everyone is LOVING this novel, so once again it's probably me.