Noemí Taboada is a 22-year-old flighty socialite living in Mexico City. She loves to dress up in beautiful gowns and high heels and go to parties with handsome young men. One evening she’s called home from a party early. Her wealthy father has received a strange letter from Catalina, Noemí’s recently married cousin. Catalina thinks she’s in danger from her new husband’s family and is begging for help. Is Catalina really imperiled, or is she suffering a mental breakdown?
Noemí’s father asks her to visit her cousin at High Place, her husband’s family’s mansion on top of a mountain in an isolated rural area of Mexico. When she arrives, Noemí is shocked to discover that, indeed, her cousin is not well. Though Catalina has moments of lucidity, at other times she rails about ghosts and other hallucinations.
The house and its inhabitants are undeniably frightening. The old mansion is dark and dank, with little heat and electricity. Mold grows on the walls and in the books. The servants seem cowed and they hardly speak, except for the housekeeper who is belligerent and obsessed with making Noemí follow the rules. But even more awful is the family itself. Catalina’s husband is handsome, but creepy and possibly lusting after Noemí. Catalina’s father-in-law is the worst, though. He tries to appear as a loving patriarch, but he is obviously evil. Both men have a weird unsettling attraction to Noemí and she suspects it has something to do with her ethnicity (she is Mexican and they are white).
The only person in the house that perhaps Noemí can trust is a quiet, pale, and weak young man who Noemí may be able to manipulate with her charms. When she manages to sneak away from the mansion, she finds a couple of other allies in town. As Noemí investigates her cousin’s new family, she begins to uncover a sordid history full of madness, murder, suicide, racism, eugenics, incest, cannibalism, and dark magic. And fungus. She also begins to experience the same bewildering hallucinations that Catalina has complained of. Will Noemí descend into madness, and/or end up as a prisoner, just like her cousin?
Readers who love gothic novels will be most attracted to Mexican Gothic (2020). It’s got all of the spooky features and feeling of dread that we love in a gothic novel, but it’s freshened up a bit with Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 1950s Mexican setting and characters and the lovely addition of fungus. The themes of racism and eugenics make the story even more disturbing. There are too many hallucinatory episodes for my taste, but they certainly added to the creepiness.
Noemí is charming, but a bit immature. I found it difficult to believe that her father would send her into a potentially dangerous situation (I can think of more plausible ways to get her to the mansion), but I thought Moreno-Garcia did a nice job with Noemí’s character development. I was a little frustrated with her, though, for not figuring out how to get out of her situation sooner. Maybe I’ve read more gothic novels than Noemí has, but the solution was obvious a lot earlier than Noemí figured it out.
Frankie Corzo narrates the audio edition of Mexican Gothic, which was produced by Random House Audio. Her voice is so pretty but the cadence is a bit choppy and may have detracted somewhat from the creepiness.
Kat gave an excellent plot summation of Mexican Gothic. I would add a warning. If you want an uninterrupted night’s sleep, don’t read this book at night. Noemí’s episodes, some of which seem to be dreams and some of which don’t, grow more sinister, and harder to classify (waking, or dreaming?), as the book continues.
Moreno-Garcia nails the Gothic style here: a grand house now crumbling to ruin; an isolated location; a sinister housekeeper; a madwoman (Noemí’s cousin Catalina plays that role); and a labyrinth of secrets. Like Kat, I really enjoyed watching the character of Noemí go up against the Doyle family, especially Howard, the virulently racist patriarch with his love of eugenics and his tirades about superior and inferior races.
Noemí is young, flirtatious, and has never had to take anything seriously so far in her life, but her loyalty to Catalina is unshakeable. She is also smarter and more educated than the Doyles or the reader might have expected. This doesn’t make her immune to the forces in the house and the grounds beneath it. A chorus of dead and discarded wives and daughters enhance the creepy, ghostly quality of the story, as do the mushrooms, the mold on the walls and the rafts of tarnished silver (the Doyles made their money from a silver mine).
The choice of setting this story in the 1950s was a good one and Moreno-Garcia sprinkles in period details deftly. It is modern enough to give Noemí the education and the specific means she needs to defeat the evil of High Place, while allowing for the physical and psychological isolation of High Place to be convincing.
This is a horror novel, and not particularly funny, but Moreno-Garcia has a dark, gin-dry wit, and we see flashes of it through Noemí, like when she thinks that Howard must have a set of calipers so he can measure skulls — then later revises that; he must has a whole collection of calipers. Her interplay with a healer in the nearby village is a blend of irreverence, banter and respect. That’s hard to pull off but Moreno-Garcia does it.
If you like smart, irreverent heroines facing misogyny and racism, immersive, creepy and seductive gothic horror where you, like the character, can’t quite tell what is real and what is a dream, or you’re interested in 1950s Mexico or just a bit of that country’s history, Mexican Gothic is for you.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia follows a really good book with another really good book. I loved Noemí, who’s a bit of a dilettante but smart and fierce. Determined to save her beloved cousin, she’s pitted against a creepy eugenicist and a house built — literally — on the misery of women and indigenous people. The speculative element makes clever use of a phenomenon that science is just beginning to understand. As Marion said, Moreno-Garcia nails the Gothic style. The book is not long and reads quickly, but packs in a ton of atmosphere and peril. I devoured it.