(2022) Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Jo Fletcher Books, £16.99, trdpbk, 307pp ISBN 978-1-529-41800-2
Carlota Moreau: A young woman, growing up in a distant and luxuriant estate, safe from the conflict and strife of the Yucatan peninsula, the only daughter of a genius - or a madman. Montgomery Laughton: A melancholic overseer with a tragic past and a propensity for alcohol, an outcast who assists Dr Moreau with his scientific experiments, which are financed by the Lizaldes, owners of magnificent haciendas with plentiful coffers.The hybrids: The fruits of the Doctor's labour, destined to blindly obey their creator while they remain in the shadows, are a motley group of part-human, part-animal monstrosities. All of them are living in a perfectly balanced and static world which is jolted by the abrupt arrival of Eduardo Lizalde, the charming and careless son of Doctor Moreau's patron - who will, unwittingly, begin a dangerous chain-reaction. For Moreau keeps secrets, Carlota has questions, and in the sweltering heat of the jungle passions may ignite.
Now this is an interesting book from Moreno-Garcia, who is probably best known for her novel Mexican Gothic. Here, she is riffing off H. G. Wells 1986 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, which as you might have guessed (if you haven’t read it) is set on an island, although in this novel – I’m resisting using the word “version” to describe this novel - Moreno-Garcia sets the story in a very real place that isn’t actually an island, but has often been incorrectly referred to being one, which is the Yucatan peninsula where Dr. Moreau carries out his work on a remote estate. The sense of place and history and people loom large over the plot given that in real-life the area was the scene for an uprising by the indigenous Maya people who were oppressed in a Caste system by those who had settled in the region. Twisting this into fiction, Doctor Moreau finds himself carrying out experiments to create hybrids which in the eyes of his patron, who is bank rolling the entire enterprise, will result in the creation of a more obedient, and less rebellious, workforce, but Moreau has other ideas and is happily experimenting to his black heart’s content, until his patron gets fed up with the lack of results, and sends his son to hurry things along, with dire consequences.
Before then we encounter the bad Doctor and his fourteen-year old daughter, Carlota, who has been treated for an illness using a serum her father has created derived from jaguars. Uh, oh, you might think, as alarm bells ring in your head. Being a teenager, Carlota is pretty inquisitive and knows her father has secrets, and attempts to uncover them. Added into the mix is the estate’s new overseer, one Montgomery Laughton (named after Charles Laughton who starred as Moreau in the first film version of Wells’ tale called Island of Lost Souls (trailer here) way back in 1932). Six years later, in 1877, Eduardo Lizalde, the patron’s son arrives and a romance begins, but so do other things.
Given the title of the novel, readers may think they are in for a body-horror novel (and there is plenty of that in the descriptions of Moreau’s hybrid creations), but Moreno-Garcia’s re-imagining of Wells’ original is a very twenty-first century take on the over-arching themes of The Island of Doctor Moreau regarding animal experimentation, and vivisection, but added into the plot are the effects of colonialism, the impact of class structure, slavery, feminism, romance and gender roles, in a tale where the lines blur between the humans and the monsters. The world-building and scene-setting is first-class, although dare I say, given Carlota’s sheltered upbringing and her lack of experience of things beyond the estate, she isn’t as well-fleshed out as Laughton, who has a back-story and plenty of baggage that he carries with him, although is it any wonder that Carlota is not a typical Victorian woman given her upbringing and surroundings? You don’t need to have read Wells’ classic novel to appreciate and enjoy Moreno-Garcia’s tale, but I like to think that old Herbert George would have approved of this updating, I certainly did.
See Arthur's take on The Daughter of Doctor Moreau as well as Mark's review.
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