Desert Isle Keeper
COVID-19 has made us more aware than ever of the importance of the spaces we call our own. That makes this the perfect moment to read the uncanny, absorbing Mexican Gothic, a tale about the kind of location in which you most definitely wouldn’t want to shelter in place.
Wealthy socialite Noemí Taboada had planned to spend her summer break from university enjoying herself in Mexico City, but when her father receives a disturbing, frantic letter from her cousin Catalina, he sends Noemí to bring her home. It will be no easy task. Catalina hastily married Virgil Doyle just a few months before and he has taken her to High Place, a distant house nestled among steep mountains in the Mexican countryside. Noemí’s not sure she will succeed in her assignment – Catalina gave her family little time to mingle with her groom, but the impression Noemí received was of a cold, domineering man who will not easily give in to her supplications to let heiress Catalina return to Mexico City .
When she arrives, Noemí realizes that High Place is even more isolated than she had feared. It is situated far above a remote, deeply impoverished town, and the sole road there is overgrown, and flanked by treacherous ravines. The silver mine, the source of the family’s once legendary wealth, is closed and High Place itself has fallen into disrepair. An endless, cold mist surrounds the abode, and even though it’s the 1950s, there are no electric lights, only oil lamps and candelabra. The rooms are musty, the wall paper moldy, the stonework crumbling. But that is nothing compared to the weirdness of the home’s inhabitants.
Florence, Virgil’s aunt, is the housekeeper. She shows Noemí to her room and advises her that there is no smoking in the house – and no talking at meal times. She is also Catalina’s nursemaid and is openly hostile to Noemí’s wish to visit with her cousin, insisting Catalina needs rest. She grudgingly allows Noemí to speak briefly with her, a conversation that is spent with Catalina advising Noemí that the ghosts which haunt the manor are very real. Leaving that room, Noemí tries to get Virgil to agree to let her take Catalina away for psychiatric treatment but he insists that Catalina is improving under the care of the family doctor and just needs time to recover from a recent bout of tuberculosis. Noemi finds this patently ridiculous as tuberculosis doesn’t cause hallucinations or paranoia, and attempts to speak to the vacuous servants, hoping they can tell her what is happening but they refuse to say anything more than that they are busy and don’t have time to speak to her.
The strangeness of the day is capped by an awkward silent evening meal which is made more bizarre when at the end they are joined by Howard Doyle, Virgil’s father and the patriarch of the clan. He shatters the quiet of the dinner table by engaging Noemí in conversation, and his fascination with eugenics – and her heritage in particular – makes her deeply uneasy. She is grateful to escape his company and take what little comfort she can in the privacy of her own dreary, decaying room but the creepiness of the situation follows her there, too. She has nightmares of a glowing faceless woman and mushrooms which sprout from the wall. Morning brings little relief, as she wanders a house which looks as macabre in the watery daylight that trickles in past the deep fog as it does in the candlelight. She’s not sure how much help she can be to the clearly imprisoned Catalina under the circumstances, but surprisingly, she finds an ally in Virgil’s cousin, Francis. A quiet, pale young man, he is the only one who speaks of escaping the house, and who shows concern for Catalina. But he seems as trapped in High Place as she has begun to fear she is.
The centerpiece of any good gothic is the setting and High Place, with its chilling, atmospheric, desolate location is perfect. From the moment Noemí first sets foot in the house, the reader is transported to an other-worldly, sinister locale where danger seems to lurk in the very air. The author does a fantastic job of transfusing a lurking foreboding into every moment of her text. Even when nothing overtly strange is happening, there is this lingering, delicious sense of impending doom which seems to hover over the house, waiting for its moment.
The second most important factor to any gothic is the heroine and Noemí is a fantastic one. She’s strong, resourceful and resilient. Her stubborn refusal to abandon her cousin to whatever bizarre plan Virgil has for her is admirable and her clever wit, cheery, cheeky demeanor and kind nature all make her an absolute delight to root for. I liked that she wasn’t a wide-eyed innocent but had a worldly glamour. She drinks, smokes, dances, and at school, she is renowned for being able to have a good time. Her lively spirits and strong personality make her a pleasant change from the typical guileless gals who people these kinds of stories.
The author does provide us with the requisite ingénue but it is Francis who plays that role here, and his sweet, wholesome sincerity and shy insecurity quickly endear him to both the reader and Noemí. There is a romance here but it is a very subtle one, with our bold, brash heroine falling slowly for the far gentler, more serious – and mysterious – hero. As in most gothics, the love story is partly an intellectual exercise as the heroine must decide if she can trust anyone – even the man she is falling in love with – given the situation she finds herself in.
The plot here is standard fare for this genre. There is a damsel in distress, in this case Catalina, and a sinister, brooding but exceedingly handsome man (Virgil) who appears to be up to no good. Logic and instinct are often at war in these books, with a practical explanation available to explain all the misfortunes and oddities that occur but with intuition pointing the heroine – and therefore the reader – towards the more portentous, malignant, emotive, yet seemingly unlikely resolution. Ms. Moreno-Garcia does a wonderful job of balancing these two opposing forces within her novel as she takes us to the inevitable explosive conclusion.
One point of warning. There are several dream sequences which are disturbing and feature depictions of sexual assault. These are in no way depicted as romantic, but as forced and nightmarish. The rapes occur only in dreams, and are not graphically portrayed but I did wish to advise readers that they are present and involve some dark, rather disquieting, undertones.
Mexican Gothic is exactly what the title promises – a thrilling, spooky story set in a unique location. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys this genre.