A book review of the best-selling noir/horror novel that won Goodread’s Choice 2020 for Horror.
When I decide to write a review of a novel, I make sure that I do not read any reviews by other readers, in order to avoid influence on my opinion. In this case, I chose to read Mexican Gothic because it won the Goodread’s Choice Award in 2020 for Horror. Not only did Mexican Gothic win, it won decisively against seemingly insurmountable competition. Mexican Gothic was up against If it Bleeds by Stephen King and Devolution by Max Brooks – both novels I read and, when finished, was left with a sense of awe at how wonderfully the stories were told. When I say this book won the contest decisively, it received 85,626 votes to 47,552 votes for King’s If it Bleeds. In the world of horror writing, that is a huge upset. In the case of Mexican Gothic, I pressed “start” on the audiobook with huge expectations.
Let me begin with the mood of this book. Moreno-Garcia brings an authentic noir feeling to the setting, in 1950’s Mexico. The narrator, Frankie Corzo, does an excellent job bringing Noemi to life. Noemi Taboada is young and beautiful, with a rich family and a series of suitors that she discards as frequently as new dresses. Like classic noir, there is a constant desire that threads itself between many of the characters that Noemi interacts with throughout the book. One of the characteristics of noir that makes the genre so compelling is the moral ambiguity of the characters. Noemi is a dutiful daughter, traveling to a rural Mexican village at the behest of her father to check on her cousin Catalina.
Catalina has recently had a whirlwind courtship with a handsome Englishman and, after a quick marriage, moved to his rural house near an old silver mine. She has sent a letter to Noemi’s father, alleging that she is in danger. While Noemi strives to determine exactly what is going on, she disregards some of the strict rules of the old, moldy estate she is a guest at; smoking in the house, speaking at the dinner table when she has not yet been invited to do so – while Noemi holds her obligation to the family as sacred, she disregards other rules and norms she finds inconvenient.
The estate she is staying at – named High Place, is the multi-generational home of the Doyle family, descendants of a wealthy businessman who purchased the small silver mine nearby and built the large house with the substantial profits from the mine. The house is described as an English Manor home, complete with an English garden and a cemetery on property. As Noemi is not able to see Catalina frequently, she has a lot of extra time on her hands to explore, and as such begins to discover secrets the Doyle family would have liked to bury. As the danger increases, so do the degrees of heat and fear between Noemi and the men of the house – the patriarch, an ancient man who often speaks to her of eugenics and “superior types,” her cousin’s husband, the handsome Virgil, and the youngest and shyest man of the house, Francis.
This noir has an added element that takes it to the next level, and that is that it addresses colonialism and how frequently colonizers disregard the lives of and property of those they colonize, often dehumanizing and mistreating people in various ways. During Noemi’s investigation into the family, she learns that many of the workers used in the silver mine were terribly mistreated and viewed as replaceable. The Doyle’s patriarch develops a desire for Noemi and Catalina- again; more for what they are able to produce for him – children.
Of course, Noemi decides to get the hell out of there, and that is where the story takes a sudden jump off the cliff. The spell breaks. Yes, it is a mystery. Everything is so beautifully executed until the perpetrator is revealed. The method of the perpetrator’s desire to overtake Noemi is, quite frankly, absurd. I wish with all my heart that Moreno-Garcia could just hack off the last 100 pieces and change the ending. The book is truly a masterpiece with the worst conceivable ending. For the people that are able to suspend disbelief and accept that the ending is plausible, I can see why they’d rate this highly. I just couldn’t make that leap of faith. The most difficult part of reviewing a novel like this is the desire to explain how a novel this wonderful can possibly have an ending that does not work well without spoiling the novel for you. I’m not going to do that, because despite the ending, I recommend that you add this to your “To Be Read” list.
My recommendation is to read this book, for no other reason than it is enjoyable to read. Moreno-Garcia is an excellent writer, and the book is enjoyable despite the disappointing ending.