Sometimes, I walk into a building and think, ‘That’s a perfect example of a (pick your architectural style of choice) structure.’ and I take pleasure in the building for its perfection, regardless of whether it’s an art nouveau garage, a Georgian townhouse or a gothic cathedral. It’s the perfection of the form that counts. Of course, my pleasure is increased if the building also contains something that gives me a reason to visit it, preferably something that complements or contrasts with its architectural style: an art nouveau garage transformed into a gourmet food hall or a gothic cathedral gilded with a son et lumière display.
My pleasure in ‘Mexican Gothic’ was like that. It first won my admiration because it’s a perfect example of a gothic novel, with deeply disturbing dread seeping out of the shadows and slowly drowning your sanity in fear. The pace and tone are perfectly controlled and the fact that the form is familiar increases rather than lessens its power.
We have the once-grand now-decaying gothic mansion that quickly becomes an external sign of the corruption of the family who owns it. We have a clever, bold, fashionable young woman who sparkles in the bright lights of1950s Mexico City finding herself in the gloomy mist of the remote mountains where her cousin seems to have become mentally unstable. We have an unwelcoming family, certain of the superiority of their Anglo blood that their commitment to eugenics has preserved and a dark secret and a threat of violence housed in a brittle shell of formal hospitality, like the smell of rot from a beautiful but fractured sarcophagus.
My pleasure was increased by the modern twists in the story that cast the gothic structure of the tale in a new light, deepening rather than diminishing its menace. Noemi, our young heroine, is a rational woman and not easily frightened. When she is confronted with the strange she looks not to superstition but to science. She is knowledgeable about chemistry and deeply antagonistic to the pseudo-science of the eugenicists. She is proud of her heritage and unbowed by Anglo condescension. She does not trust easily but she will not abandon her cousin or fail in the mission her father gave her. All these things made me want to cheer for her yet none of them was enough to help her withstand the gothic threat swallowing her whole. She remained a woman alone, prey to manipulation and abuse. Her rational curiosity served mainly to increase her vulnerability rather than to evade her fate. In the end, she had to do what any gothic heroine must do, fight for her life.
‘Mexican Gothic’ was a very pleasurable read. It kept me nodding with approval at the expected and grinning at the surprising additions. The tension was real and unrelieved. I loved that the rational explanation, when it came, was fundamentally creepy and not at all the one I had been expecting.
The only false note for me was the final chapter, which was a little too neat and too optimistic. For me, it didn’t fit with the rest of the novel. It could have been omitted and the reader would have lost nothing.
Frankie Corzo does a great job in narrating the audiobook. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.
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