Okay, here’s the thing. I’ve only read one book by Silvia Moreno-Garcia before and while I found it sweet and nice, it definitely wasn’t what the hype had made me expect. I found the tone to be much more YA than adult fantasy (although I am fairly alone in this opinion) and so I approached her newest novel with some trepidation. The hype is massive yet again, so I was all the more worried that me reading this book would lead to disappointment. Spoiler: No need to worry because this was GREAT!
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Published: DelRey, 2020
eBook: 304 pages
My rating: 8/10
Opening line: The parties at the Tuñons’ house always ended unquestionably late, and since the hosts enjoyed costume parties in particular, it was not unusual to see Chinas Poblanas with their folkloric skirts and ribbons in their hair arrive in the company of a harlequin or a cowboy.
An isolated mansion. A chillingly charismatic aristocrat. And a brave socialite drawn to expose their treacherous secrets. . . .
From the author of Gods of Jade and Shadow comes a novel set in glamorous 1950s Mexico.
After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find – her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.
Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.
Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.
And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.
The first thing I noticed about this book, and the first thing that made me fall in love with it, was the narrative tone and the protagonist. Set in 1950 in Mexico, we follow young socialite Noemí Taboada as she is leaving a fancy dress party and charms her date with her wit and flirtiness. I immediately adored her! The writing made me think of Jane Austen for some reason, but with less overdrawn characters and, of course, a completely different time and cultural setting. So this book was off to a fantastic start, and that’s despite my unintentional but existing prejudice because of all the hype.
As the synopsis promises, Noemí receives a disturbing letter from her cousin Catalina, asking for help. Although she isn’t happy about leaving her carefree life and missing social gatherings, Noemí packs her bags and goes to High Place, where her cousin lives with her husband Virgil and his family. Immediately after arriving, Noemí knows something isn’t right. It’s not just that the entire family are cold and unfriendly, the house in disrepair, and the rules ridiculous. Catalina herself appears to be ill, but it’s not simply a cold. Her mind seems confused, she’s hearing voices, and the Doyle family won’t let Noemí visit her much.
I won’t go into the details of the weird things that happen in High Place, Noemí’s strange dreams, or the rumors she hears about the Doyle family. This is a haunted house story that may or may not include supernatural elements, and it does exactly what it should. It builds up this atmosphere of unease, it makes you look for clues to what’s going on, it makes you live alongside Noemí and question everything and everyone. I loved how the house and its inhabitants are described, how local legends and rumors and stories get woven into Noemí’s experience in High Place, and how strange everyone is behaving. Noemí’s only potential ally is Francis, the quiet, pale young man who at least talks to her like a normal person.
It’s difficult to talk about this book without spoiling anything. I will say that one aspect of the mystery was quite obvious to me but the bigger secrets, while hinted at, weren’t so easily guessed. I had my suspicions the entire time but then Moreno-Garcia adds a little twist and all my ideas suddenly don’t make sense anymore. I don’t know about you guys but I love it when I think I’ve got something figured out that then turns out to be wrong. Not every author has the ability to achieve that, to mislead their readers in such a way that the twists at the end still feel satisfying. But Silvia Moreno-Garcia hit the mark. She gave us just enough clues to figure some things out for ourselves, while surprising us with the whole terrifying story at the end.
Other reviews have mentioned that this book is rather slow but I have to disagree. Sure, the setting is rather narrow – mostly Noemí stays at High Place with occasional visits to the local village – but there’s always something happening. Whether it’s Noemí’s terrible nightmares, the utterly strange behaviour of the Doyle family and their servants, or her brief talks with Catalina, I never felt bored for one second. Unlike what I’d heard about this book before, it’s definitely not just dinner conversations and descriptions of the house, if only for the reason that the Doyle family spends dinner in silence. Like I said, they are weird…
The one thing that can make or break a horror story for me is the protagonist. I don’t just mean that I want to like them, but I absolutely need the protagonist to be Not Stupid. And Noemí was more than that. She is clever and cautious when she needs to be, without turning into a Mary Sue. In fact, she is well aware of her own character flaws, and that makes her even more likable. But most importantly, she knows what kind of story she has stumbled into but she reacts like most people would. She kind of thinks she’s in a haunted house but she also doesn’t believe in ghosts and keeps searching for a scientific reason behind what’s going on. Whenever she uncovers something new, she collects her thoughts first, she tries to formulate a plan. I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed her as a character and especially as the heroine in this gothic tale.
While it’s not the main focus of the book, I also enjoyed how Moreno-Garcia managed to weave a bit of history in the story. The Doyle family came to Mexico from England where they bought a silver mine and exploited many workers for their own financial gain. Howard Doyle, the ancient patriarch of the family, also has a thing for eugenics and doesn’t miss a chance to let Noemí know just what he thinks about classifying people into good and bad, based on their appearance or bloodline. You can imagine that it was pretty easy to despise the man but this topic wasn’t just thrown into the story to make clear that Howard is a despicable human being. It’s all part of the bigger tale.
Another thing that pleasantly surprised me was Noemí’s relationship with Francis. It doesn’t take long for the reader – or Noemí, for that matter – to realize that Francis is rather taken with her. But Noemí usually flirts with attractive men, men who can keep up with her wit, who know how to flirt and be charming. Francis is none of that and yet, the two form a sort of friendship that gave me all the warm feelings I could want. This relationship was also a chance for Noemí to grow as a person, to not pick her friends or suitors by appearance or superficial charm only, but by deeper values.
At the end, things come together beautifully. Well, if you can call it beautiful when talking about a horror novel that describes some truly disturbing things. But you know what I mean. All the elements fall into place to paint a larger picture that makes perfect sense. The clues were there all along, you just have to piece them together in the right way. And for anyone who feels that this book is a bit slow, you can expect a lot to happen at the end! When I was reading the last few chapters, my boyfriend suddenly asked “is the book exciting?” because, apparently, I had that look on my face. Utter concentration mixed with shock mixed with disgust – so the ending was really, really good! 🙂
I’m so glad that the hype hasn’t ruined this book for me. In fact, I’m jumping on the hype train and looking forward to all the other books by Silvia Moreno-Garcia I have on my TBR. Her range already impresses me after having read only two of her novels. If she can jump from genre to genre like this, then I can’t wait to see what she writes next.
MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!