The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Book review: “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia expands traditional gothic themes

4 min read

Silvia Moreno-Garcia has written many novels that follow a similar theme to “Mexican Gothic.” |, Instagram


Staff Writer

“He is trying to poison me. This house is sick with rot, stinks of decay, brims with every single evil and cruel sentiment.” These are the words that Noemí Taboado receives in a letter from her newlywed cousin, Catalina Doyle. 

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Mexican Gothic” was described as “a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking novel” in a review by NPR, and I cannot find any room to disagree with this sentiment. Taking place in an isolated mansion in 1950s Mexico, Moreno-Garcia’s 2020 novel tells the story of Noemí’s quest to find out the meaning behind her cousin’s frantic letter and rescue her from High Place, the isolated countryside house that threatens to consume them both. 

There are many things that this novel does well. The aspects that stand out most to me are the reimagining of the gothic novel and Moreno-Garcia’s ambitious—and successful—attempt to comment on the role of women within both the genre and the time period in which the novel takes place. 

Anne Williams, author of “Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothics,” characterizes gothic plots as domestic, as they center around dangers that befall the home. Therefore, the setting usually involves a family home with a default focus on the woman—or women—at the center. This phenomenon can be observed in novels like “Jane Eyre,” “The Mysteries of Udolpho” and “Rebecca,” which have all been cited as inspirations for “Mexican Gothic.” By centering the plot at High Place, Moreno-Garcia is playing into the gothic plot that Williams outlines, as High Place is the center of domesticity for the Doyle family. The house is the location of their legacy and, with the arrival of Noemí, it has the potential to be the location of their downfall. 

Other common tropes of the genre outside of the gothic location include but are not limited to isolation, madness, disease, superstition, dreams and nightmares, frame narratives and darkness. When applied shallowly, these tropes can come across as superficial and lacking substance. However, due to Moreno-Garcia’s background in eugenics history and knowledge of the historical landscape of Real del Monte, the town that served as an inspiration for “Mexican Gothic,” the novel’s approach to these tropes is grounded and lacking superficiality. 

Certain updates to the gothic genre make “Mexican Gothic” such a compelling novel. Typically, the heroines of the gothic novel are virtuous, innocent and overall vanilla in their characterization. This does not mean that this type of heroine cannot be compelling to read about, as with Jane Eyre, or that these characters cannot be without their faults, like Catherine Linton of “Wuthering Heights.” But, after a while, these heroines can come across as formulaic or even frustrating to read for even those familiar with and a fan of the genre. 

Noemí Taboado is anything but innocent and virtuous. The novel opens up with her on a casual date with a man she “does not intend to marry” who she asks for a cigarette. All of this clues readers in to the type of person Noemí is: direct, free with her sexuality and not afraid to talk back to the men around her, i.e. her beau and father. A female protagonist like this deviates from the traditional gothic heroine, which makes for a much more charismatic and exciting third-person narrator. It also allows readers to see how interactions with the much more traditional Doyle family will eventually lead to conflict within the narrative. 

Noemí also has goals outside of the narrative’s main plot. Her initial motivation to go to High Place is not just because her cousin asked, but because her father promises that she will be able to attend university if she does. Rather than strive for marriage, Noemí is actively fighting against the societal expectation that she needs to get married in order to be successful. Her path to that success, while being held in the hands of her father, is a quest to help out another woman in her life. I do not view this as coincidence, as there are many instances throughout the novel in which Noemí must rely on women and other victims of the patriarchy in order to succeed in gaining her freedom. 

Another—albeit obvious—deviation from the traditional gothic novel is the setting. No, I am not talking about the big, spooky house. Instead, I am referring to the fact that Moreno-Garcia sets her novel in the Mexican countryside, which is a new take on the traditional location of the gothic novel. This setting allows for a more direct commentary regarding the impacts of colonialism, as the Doyle family members are white Brits who have made their success by exhausting the resources that surround their property. As Moreno-Garcia herself said in an interview with Code Switch, “I just thought it was an interesting bit of the colonial legacy, to look at the British legacy, and to set it in Mexico to examine some of those forces colliding.”

There are plenty of other points that Moreno-Garcia hits on in her novel, and I could talk all day about them. However, I think that the best thing you could do in order to understand the grotesque beauty of “Mexican Gothic” is to pick up a copy and read it yourself. It is truly a thrilling adventure for anyone who enjoys narratives revolving around atmospheric settings, headstrong heroines and horror that weaves the natural and supernatural together.