The book opens up from the perspective of a boy out on a party with a flighty, superficial and possibly spoiled socialite. I think this was intentional on the part of the author. A party girl is not what we expect to be a heroine of a story, much less a horror one. Noemi Taboada is a lovely heroine. Unusual in that she is smart and strong (as most heroines are) but also flighty, stubborn and a socialite who enjoys going to parties and flirting with boys (which most heroines are not).
Noemi is living the good life in 1950s Mexico. Sure, going to parties and enjoying life but also trying to find meaning and something that fulfills her, hence constantly shifting disciplines. Her father convinces her (through a promise of higher education) to check on her close cousin Catalina’s who had been recently married. Catalina had sent an unhinged letter and was thought to be sick
So she travels to the High Place, the grand mansion owned by the Doyle family, where Cataline lives with her English husband, Virgil and his family. The family is just the patriarch, Howard Doyle, the aunt, Florence and the nephew Francis. High Place is in a remote and mountainous region of Mexico where there used to be silver mined by the Doyle family. But various tragedies and sicknesses has stopped mine operations and there is now just a poor, sad town and the desolate and damp mansion.
Of course, things get weird. Who are Noemi’s allies? What the hell is wrong with Catalina? Why is Howard Doyle so gross? Are things really happening or is Noemi going crazy? At various times in the book I guessed that it was all hallucinations from mold, or that they were vampires, or that it was all a misunderstanding. The real answer is way weirder but also satisfying. It is not afraid to delve into the supernatural.
Throughout the book, there are themes of colonialism, eugenics and fetishization of dark bodies. Noemi is a privileged young lady, no doubt being born rich., but to the white Englishman Howard Doyle, she was still brown and lesser. It goes hand in hand with how women, even white women are treated as disposable and mere carriers of babies. I found it fascinating that the book shows how rot and stagnation manifests when old money and whiteness is maintained. Speaking of rot, there is a some gross body horror, not too much but enough for me, thank you, so be warned.
So I really liked it. The first part is a slow burn but I enjoy how we get to know Noemi. Like I said, I loved her. There is also a bit of a subdued love story which I found simultaneously sweet (because I love pale troubled boys) and also uncomfortable and foreboding, especially during the ending (or maybe I’m just pessimistic).