Fiction Reviews


The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

(2022) Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Jo Fletcher Books, £14.99, trdpbk, 309pp, ISBN 978-1-529-41800-2

 

The title alone clearly denotes that this is a riff on H. G. Wells’ 1896 SF horror classic The Island of Doctor Moreau, given a feminist slant, but it is much more than that and is often unexpectedly beautiful.

The Well’s novel has no female characters (though a few of the beasts are described as being female). The 1932 film Island of Lost Souls (trailer here) introduced Kathleen Burke’s Lola, who proved to be such a memorable character that many adaptations have added the character since, though not usually by the same name: she was Maria (Barbara Carrera) on the 1977 version (trailer here) and Aissa (Fairuza Balk) in the risible 1996 version (trailer here) both later films having the same name as the Wells' novel.

Silvia’s Carlota (the eponymous Daughter) has much in common with these ladies though her introduction into the revision is not the novel’s only radical shift from the parent text. The story is not set on an island at all, but in mainland Mexico in 1871 (and later on into 1877). Carlota tells half the story from her own point of view, in chapters alternating with narration by Montgomery, a drunken big game hunter who secures animals, including jaguars, for Moreau to experiment on. (The Montgomery character did appear in the Well’s original.

Much of the Garcia story is about Montgomery and another assistant to Moreau, Eduardo, clashing in jealousy from their love for Carlota. This is dangerous, as Eduardo has ties to his own father, who is financing the remote jungle sanatorium clinic he thinks Moreau is running.

Moreau is promising to sell his hybrid, humanised animals to plantation bosses who face rebellion from the native Mexican workers who have rejected their oppressive regimes. Many seem fully aware of what Moreau is up to, and keen to profit by his experiments. This leads to an unusual bond of support between the hybrids and the native Mexicans, as they recognise that they are both exploited and abused by the system.

Trouble is coming from many angles.  1). The hybrids revert to savagery without Moreau’s constant treatments and, despite Carlota’s pleas to secure the formula to continue his administration independently, Moreau won’t reveal the secrets. Many of the hybrids will die if the serums cannot continue to be administered and Moreau is not interested in letting his daughter inherit the skills or responsibility for this.  2). Many of the hybrids are unfit for offering as a labour / slave force and Moreau seems content to simply keep taking the sponsorships to keep up his ‘science’. He never sends his creations to the plantation operators who are growing increasingly impatient about it.  3). The oppressive capitalists are getting increasingly suspicious about what is really going on at Moreau’s clinic.  4). The increasingly bitter rivalry between Montgomery and Eduardo threatens to bring the whole powder-keg to the boil.

While Wells has his hero Prendick (not featured in this version as this is a prequel to the original novel) desperately trying to escape the island as the animals revert to the feral and kill everyone round him, this version has the savagery coming from the capitalists as the Native Mexicans and hybrids unite in a desperate escape attempt, and the genre moves away from horror into the territory of romantic western.  Silvia achieves this incredibly well, creating a Dr Moreau as he might have been presented by the author Zane Grey. The author’s love of Mexico and her strong condemnation of colonialism, exploitation and racism run like voltage through the veins of the novel. The hybrids are never presented as monsters, even when they sometimes lose self-control.

Moreau himself is not treated as a deranged stop at anything madman. His daughter tries to love and respect him, and he is often presented as a weak, ailing figure, pushed into the background for much of the story. The emphasis is on Carlota finding her independence from him.

This could have gone very dark and visceral as pure horror, but it pushes to a light, surprisingly warm and comforting direction instead, becoming far more than a H. G. Wells tribute novel.

Arthur Chappell

 


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