Mexico, 1950s. Noemí travels out to check up on her newly-married cousin after some strange letters arrived from her at home. She’s “welcomed” into a decrepit old house by a family who believes they are superior to the “local” population because they’re white, European, and old money (despite the money being long gone). Soon, Noemí realizes it’s not just the family her cousin has married into that is wrong. Nightmares, hallucinations, sexual violence, alchemy, curses, and secrets blossom as Noemí is slowly consumed by the house.
This is not your traditional haunted house story. It reads more like a fairy tale than a novel, complete with a narrator who is more archetype than individual, major thematic elements (mushrooms, bees, gold, silver), and a blurring of reality and dreamscape. The book is not like anything I’ve ever read, and I mostly enjoyed it.
There were a few things that I struggled with. First, the early parts of the novel are very heavy-handed. Lots of talk about eugenics, gender roles, etc that feel overly stressed. However, those elements end up taking on different roles as the book went on, so by the end, they felt less like heavy-handed modern-day issues, and more like setup for the story. The first half was also a bit slow, and it took quite awhile until the story really got started. For a long time, it was unclear which direction it would go. Lastly, there are some elements (like the wrist-burns) that never really got addressed, so it just felt like “weird stuff that happened to happen” instead of deliberate.
On the positive side, the fairy tale atmosphere was really well-done. It’s hard to write a novel with a narrator who is archetypical in today’s environment, but Moreno-Garcia pulled it off well. Some of the elements in the book were particularly horrific (like the woman who opens her mouth despite having no mouth), and the horror bits were very unique (never been afraid of a mushroom before…). The blurred line between hallucination, dream, and reality gets so confusing at one point that you keep waiting for Noemí to wake up, and when she doesn’t, it’s so creepy and disturbing and unsettling – it’s perfect as a way to immerse the reader into this nightmare. Lastly, while the solutions and many of the twists were visible from early on, as part of the thematic elements, it never felt as if knowing the twists was a bad thing. You might know what was coming, but not how, and so you ride with the characters step by step as they figure things out.
All in all, for a book that is WAY out of my comfort zone and unlike anything I’ve ever read, I really appreciated it. It may not be my favorite book of all time, but I applaud the author for her work, and definitely want to explore more by her.
PS – That cover is AMAZING.