REVIEW: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I loved this dark, postcolonial horror story.

After her family receives an odd letter, Noemi goes to rescue her cousin Catalina from whatever is disturbing her mind at High Place. From the book description…

Noemi’s chic gowns and perfect lipstick are more suited to cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing, but she immediately heads to High Place, a remote mansion in the Mexican countryside, determined to discover what is affecting her cousin.”

The gothic details of High Place caught me from the beginning. The old English family, the Doyles, use candles and oil lamps and only sparringly. The effect of the light and the details of the dusty mansion added to the creepy setting. As she describes the chapter three, the very house feels suffocating from the moment we see it in the lamp light that “… painted the velvet curtains green. In one or other of her stories Catalina had told her the Kublai Khan executed his enemies by smothering them with velvet pillows so there would be no blood. She thought this house, with all its fabrics and rugs and tassels, could smother a whole army.”

The setting informs us of the postcolonial tensions of this usurping English family, coming and infecting the land. Their wealth reliant on silver mines which have closed: the faded grandeur reminding me of Derek Walcott’s Ruins of a Great House. But it also serves the central mystery of the story as Noemi and Catalina both become more haunted by this house. It’s a clever setting that is both exactly what you might expect in a gothic tale but also highly unexpected as we get the final horror-filled reveal in the third act.

The descriptions in this novel are so brilliant. We, like Noemi, luxuriate in her clothes and feel the tensions between the family members whose stiff Victorian manners seem so out of step with this thoroughly modern Mexican woman.

I don’t enjoy books with sexual violence and the tensions between her and her cousins husband, Virgil, as well as his snake-like father Howard, are extremely uncomfortable. However I will say that the way these men try and exert their power serves the story so though it is uncomfortable, it becomes important. It is also part of Noemi finding her own agency as she fights back from the force taking over her mind and body.

Even more uncomfortable perhaps, though again really important to the story, is the racial profiling that Virgil and Howard use to talk about Noemi in particular. At dinner on her second night, Howard Doyle leers over her, just touching her hair as if to appraise her. His books too show her his fascination with what he calls “aesthetics” but what is really eugenics. The true-to-life white supremacist position the family seems to take, combines so well with the fantasy elements of the novel. We can both be horrified both by the colonial history and the dark twists of the novel.

I was so pleased to discover that Moreno-Garcia has written many other books: is there any other pleasure than finding a new author that you love! This book will be great for fans of Du Maurier’s Rebecca but also have a horror twist which reminded me of another book I reviewed, Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver.

Do let me know if you have any other recommendations of great gothic reads!

REVIEW: Bunny by Mona Awad

The perfect (cotton) tale for anyone who has taken a writing class

Bunny by Mona Awad was one of those books I started thinking it was about University. A book for anyone who has ever braved a writing class and in a sense relatable, funny. I didn’t realise it was about to go to such a weird and dark place. The book it most reminds me of is The Secret History. Fans of Donna Tartt’s tour de force will definitely enjoy the fantastical elements of this novel and I do still feel like it will be a great read for anyone who is fan of this book but this turns out to be something quite different. As the synopsis says…

“Samantha Heather Mackey couldn’t be more of an outsider in her small, highly selective MFA program at New England’s Warren University. A scholarship student who prefers the company of her dark imagination to that of most people, she is utterly repelled by the rest of her fiction writing cohort–a clique of unbearably twee rich girls who call each other “Bunny,” and seem to move and speak as one.

But everything changes when Samantha receives an invitation to the Bunnies’ fabled “Smut Salon,” and finds herself inexplicably drawn to their front door–ditching her only friend, Ava, in the process…”

The small exclusive college is something I can relate to, having spend a wonderful year abroad at the beautiful Mount Holyoke. This sort of book suckers me in like my previous review of The Borrower, the New England connection always gets me interested! But really book doesn’t twist to interesting until after Samantha has attended her first Salon. She is scathing as she enters into their exclusive set. ” Their cheeks are plump and pink and shining like they’ve been eating too much sugar, but actually it’s Gossip Glow, the flushed look that comes from throwing another woman under the bus.”

It seems like a the book will turn into Mean Girls as she dumps her edgy friend Ava for the women who simper at each other, calling each other bunnies. In fact, Samantha’s perspective on all the women has this misogynistic tilt: categorising each into their type very rarely naming them . One woman so personifies a cupcake that she is consistently described as edible. But again the gothic girl, the preppy girl: these stereotypes seem as recognisable as the teen movies which apparently insists everyone only has one identity.

If you do find these tropes a bit frustrating, it’s worth sticking with the novel as it gets a lot more sci-fi in act two. As the group works towards their final projects for their MFA, they join forces to create the perfect work. The witchcraft or science fiction takes over at this point as they develop their stories (without giving away spoilers). Their experiments are horrific and we are so angry with this unlikeable group of women trying to craft their work that we are cheering for Samantha to return to her true friends.

Trying not to be scared, image on Flickr

But as we swoop into the final act, the shocks speed up as we try and figure the truth of Samantha’s role. We want to see her succeed, create her amazing work that is going to beat the entitled, unbearable women. Particularly as we see them gang up on her more and more. In the end they are her conscience who tries to bring her back to reality, The Duchess reminding her: “But it’s one thing to go to the edge. It’s another thing to fall off entirely, isn’t it?”

I’m going to say what I have seen a lot of reviews I read have said: I could not fully follow these final twists and turns. I had to re-read the final twenty pages of the denouement after I had raced to the finish. But unlike others who have either called this book “weird” or hated the sexism in the book, I’m going to say this is the book I have read this year that has made me think. I need to revisit it to fully understand it, to get into how Samantha’s warped perspective skews our understanding. Just like The Secret History, the central mysteries that drive the novel, mean you have to re-read this book.

To me this beautifully written novel is clever and cunning. It tries to teach us about writing while also subverting tropes we know so well. I read the book in February and I am still thinking about it which is a mark of how haunting it is. I would recommend this book if you have been to writing class not just because it’s a fun pastiche of attending an intense writing programme but because there are lessons to be learnt.

If nothing else it teaches us all the power of editing:, “I mean, you have to kill your Darlings, remember?”

In defence of audiobooks

As an English grad, I am horrified that I hardly read a physical book this year but audiobooks have been an essential in my life this year

Earlier this year, I shared how I have started to count audiobooks as reading. It still seems wrong to say but despite the fatigue and brain fog of long covid, I have read just shy of 50 books this year. Most of them are listens rather than read and some are also re-reads. But I have now fully convinced this is the best way to really appreciate a text and I am sad I have waited so long to consume books in this way.

The main reason I want to defend the audiobook is this is the year I finally “read” Anna Karenina. Now, I have battled through most of War and Peace and knew that I liked Tolstoy’s knowing narration, grand settings but until this year, I never made it through Anna Karenina. And I must admit I had missed out. The first modern novel, obsessed with it’s own modernity, attempting to understand the psychology of it’s tragic heroes as well of of course the new age dawning with trains and the death of feudal farming, I find this a deeply fascinating novel. I did know the ending, but I was deeply shocked when I got there. The depth of my investment in the relationships and the complexity are so rewarding for the reader. When I am reading a novel twenty minutes at a time, holding all the characters in my head, switching between the town and countryside is confusing to follow, particularly when my brain is fogged. Having a voice actor peform the audiobook, we gain so much in their characterisation and can more easily follow the changes in voice and place in the novel.

Finally read Anna Karenina

It has also been an amazing way to reread books. I’ve listed before books that I think it is worth rereading. I have enjoyed the comfort of revisiting Jane Austen and the Northern Lights series by Phillip Pullman. Though I know these books so well, you pick up extra elements on each reread and this was very much part of my enjoyment of revisiting these books on audio. The performance is adding to the nuances that you pick up on as you revisit favourite places like Pemberley or characters like the villainous Mrs Coulter

A friend recently asked me how I concentrate on audiobooks as she tends to realise she has drifted off. Well this is a danger and with the relistens is matters less because you know the story but as I have managed brand new books this year too, I think I must be able to concentrate. My secret if anything is that listening to the book is the activity rather than have it on in the background. With my fatigue condition I have been bone tired enough to rest for great parts of the day. Not always thankfully but I lot of the time I have needed to give my brain a break and as I wrote before, audiobooks have formed an important part of my active resting.

So as I go forward with a bit more energy and a lot of hope, it may be that audiobooks were just the thing that got me through 2021 and ill-health. But even if I don’t get this time again to rest and “read” I will forever now advocate for audiobooks as a great way to tackle books, particularly ones that you have put off for years.

Are you an audiobook fan?

REVIEW: Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

I have written of my love of gothic fiction before and Michelle Paver’s recent bestseller is a new favourite

Wakenhyrst is a gothic mansion hidden in the fenlands of Suffolk near where I recently spent a week away so I was very happy to make this one of my first autumn reads. Suffolk is an area full of myth, it’s the perfect spot for this tale of horror, both imagined and real. As the blurb describes, the house is surrounded by” a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father. When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.” The old manor house, this one being encroached on by the smell and damp of the fen, is full of great cast of characters whose lives are unravelled by the discovery of the painting.

I was a bit confused at first whether this novel was going to lurch back and forth between the 1960s journalist writing about Wakenhyrst and the fin-de-siecle setting but we find this is in fact just the framing for Maud’s story. She becomes our protagonist and we grow with her as she matures and manages to understand more about her father, Edmund Stearne, the villain of the piece.

Stearne is haunted by his discovery of a painting and also by his scholarship into Alice Pyett, a fictionalised version of Margery Kemp. In his pursuit to understand Alice’s visions, as well as her apparent madness, his own mental health seems to deteriorate. The gap between what both he and Maud believe is happening and their differing beliefs about both religion and folklore all make for a compelling mystery. You find yourself racing through to find out the truth. I can imagine I will need to read it again to capture all the detail.

I enjoyed the level of detail that went into many aspects of their lives: the artwork, local customs, the landscape and the food they eat. All of these make it feel like you are in knowledgeable hands and that the writer is enveloping you in this world she has found.

The characters in the novel, particularly through Maud’s eyes are often comical and I enjoyed meeting the repugnant doctor and lascivious Ivy. The psychological nature of this novel really appealled to me and though many of the characters are often villianous, it also feels they are grounded in truth.

I wasn’t completely sure why we needed to follow the story of Maud into later life. Many parts of the mystery unfolding were exciting enough and I expected the novel to end before it did. I did really enjoy the novel but it was the historical part of the fiction that was the best for me.

I would definitely recommend this novel for fans of gothic fiction and folklore.

If you like this, you will also like:

The strong and sassy female lead in The Mermaid and the Bear. Set amongst the witchcraft hysteria in 17th century Scotland, this is also full of fascinating details of the time and great historical fiction. My review is here

In The Night Wood by Dale Bailey the main character is an academic studying an old manuscript of fairy stories that comes to haunt him. This time the manor house is set in great woods, but just like the fen in Wakenhyrst, they it starts to encroach on the tumbledown manor.

REVIEW: Among the Trees

Hayward Gallery, London

What a strange and perfect first foray into London after six months, an exhibition about trees at the Southbank Centre. In truth I chose an event at the Southbank because it is just one train to get there for me, reducing the time out in a mask. Like testing the water, a place I know so not too far out of my comfort zone. I have written before about my anxieties in the City which always go hand-in-hand with the child-like buzz of excitement I get to be there.

So in town again, amongst not too many people, I am also at an exhibition designed for me, it seems, called Among the Trees. It is a collection of artwork from the last fifty years that captures trees and importantly human’s interactions with them. A time span chosen to reflect the modern environmentalist movement. With this in mind, the centre piece upstairs at the exhibition is a tree of life-size proportions with a leaves of colourful plastic bags. A little on the nose, it is a bright moment in quite a dark exhibition.

My favourite piece another large installation is Forêt Palatine – a cardboard forest. What is great that climbing the stairs I got a view of the whole exhibition space, everyone mercifully spread out, and a glimpse of the forest. The detail on it, made you want to touch but you can’t. A tale for now, indeed.

I loved the Rachel Sussman photographs too, she has travelled the world for a decade finding the oldest things on the planet, like the underground forest in South Africa that has been in the ground for 13,000 years. Nothing like living through a pandemic for an existential crisis. But isn’t this the perfect place to be. The two video installations of trees begging us to just stop and stare. They anchor us and challenge our ideas about longevity.

The final gallery speaks more to human interaction with trees, photos of New York trees with metal fencing growing through them and a British painter, George Shaw displaying rubbish around an old tree. These artworks, rather than venerate the old trees, remark on how we encroach on natural life. These and Sussmann’s work in stark contrast where an ancient tree is in a open landscape, a pillar of ancient in a sparse world.

I think this was a great way back to the museum. The exhibition has a simple message but one that speaks to us if we just take a moment to reflect on the way we have been forced to slow down. Where was the one place we spent our daily exercise during lockdown, why local woods of course. And I’m always happiest among the trees.

Has anyone else braved museums in these new-normal times?