I love gothic novels. I love gothic films. I love gothic stories, in general. And I loved this one.
I’ve never read a gothic novel that takes place outside of Europe, unless they’re on the East Coast of the U.S. And to set one in Mexico was such a great choice. Though, the menacing family and house are purely English and very familiarly gloomy.
Mexican Gothic follows Noemí Taboada as she travels from her exciting life as a beloved socialite in Mexico City to a decidedly quieter town, El Triunfo, where her cousin, Carolina, has been taken ill. Noemí receives a letter from her recently married cousin, and Carolina is rambling about ghosts and illusions and death. Noemí catches the next train to the countryside and is astonished when she is driven to a dreary, English-style mansion known as “The High Place” – named for its location at the top of the mountain in the town. The house is a warped reflection of its former grandeur when the Doyles owned and operated a very successful silver mine. The mine has run dry, and labor become scarce after multiple epidemics that wiped out the town.
In the house are three servants who don’t talk much; Florence – the de facto house manager; Francis – Florence’s son and a jack-of-all-trades whose true love is botany; Carolina; Virgil Doyle – Carolina’s new husband and Florence’s cousin; and Howard Doyle – the ancient patriarch of the Doyle family. Noemí immediately chafes against the strict rules at High Place – she is colorful, stylish, modern, opinionated, and stubborn. The house is the opposite of all of those things. It doesn’t help that she has dark skin and dark hair in a house that subscribes to the ideas of eugenics and a master race.
Noemí finds her cousin unwell and disoriented, and she seeks for a way to heal her. It seems the Doyles only have one doctor – Arthur Cummins – imported from England along with many dishes, pieces of furniture, textiles, and even some soil in the garden. Cummins says Carolina has tuberculosis, which Noemí doubts, leading her to ask the local doctor to offer a second opinion. The Doyles don’t appreciate this, and they make themselves known.
The longer she stays at High Place, the more nightmares Noemí experiences, filled with pulsating walls, visions of the past, and a woman with no face. The house is covered, invaded, really, by mold, and Noemí learns that there is something sinister in the house. She also finds an unlikely connection with Francis, who is far from the type of man she would pursue in Mexico City. He isn’t flirtatious or glamorous – he’s timid and old-fashioned.
As things become stranger and stranger, Noemí frantically searches for way to save herself and those she cares about from the talons of High Place and Howard Doyle.
This novel has all the familiar tropes of a gothic story – haunting house, dreariness, unexplained fog/mist, a mysterious family with a tragic past, upstairs/downstairs dynamics, and a strained relationship with the local town. There are also ghosts, illusions, dreams, and unexplained madness. And the most delightful moments (for a literary nerd) happen when Noemí makes comments that reference the strangeness of this English Victorian home and family plopped in the middle of 1950s Mexico. It’s a house out of place and time in a story that should be out of place and time, but somehow, it all works great together.