(2023) Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Jo Fletcher Books, £16.99, hrdbk, 283pp, ISBN 978-1-529-42632-8
Baja California, 1979: Viridiana spends her days under the harsh sun, watching the fishermen pulling in their nets and the dead sharks piled beside the seashore. Her head is filled with dreams of romance, travel and of a future beyond this drab town where her only option is to marry and have children. When a wealthy American writer arrives with his wife and brother-in-law, Viridiana jumps at the offer of a job as his assistant, and she's soon entangled in the glamorous foreigners' lives. They offer excitement, and perhaps an escape from her humdrum life. When one of them dies, eager to protect her new friends, Viridiana lies - but soon enough, someone's asking questions. It's not long before Viridiana has some of her own questions about the identities of her new acquaintances. Sharks may be dangerous, but there are worse predators nearby, ready to devour a naive young woman unwittingly entangled in a web of deceit.
One of the things – I think – that marks a good writer is their ability to do something different with each novel, and so it is with Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Untamed Shore which is not her typical speculative fare having given us vampires, science fiction and all-out horror; rather it is a noir novel, a coming-of-age novel, involving eighteen year-old Viridiana who is stuck in a rut in her home village with little prospects except being forced into a marriage with Manual, the son of her mother’s friend, and ending up like her mother by becoming a mother, again, and again. She yearns for something better, possibly in Mexico City where her father leads a new life with a new family, and has little time for her. She is already slightly different from the other girls in the village as she taught herself some languages which has helped her get a job as a tour guide when the tourists come and she has befriended an Dutchman called Reynier who tells her that three Americans are renting a villa and one of them is a writer who would need some clerical help and help with translation, and would she like the job? For a variety of reasons – more money, something new and exciting, and also to annoy her mother – she accepts.
The writer is Ambrose, who actually doesn’t seem to do much writing, and isn’t that nice to Viridiana or the others who have arrived with him. They are his younger wife, Daisy, who obviously married Ambrose for his money and veers between being all charm, and all venom, and Daisy’s brother, Gregory, a handsome, smooth operator who quickly turns on the charm with Viridiana, making all sorts of promises about a life the two of them can have far away from the coast, but he is not what he seems, none of them are, as Viridiana comes to realise. They have hidden depths, ulterior motives, but in a way, so does she. She waits, she watches, enduring their attitudes and behaviour towards her, seeing her as little more than a servant.
Originally published in 2020 by Agora Books, and now republished by Jo Fletcher Books, Untamed Shore is told over 23 chapters plus an epilogue and is a slow burner of a novel as events unfold and become darker. Moreno-Garcia is brilliant at conjuring up the hot, dead-end world that Viridiana occupies. You can almost feel the heat, making everyone listless, too warm to do anything but except the status quo in a place full of dead sharks and living sharks with sharp tongues and blunt fists. Viridiana is determined not to succumb to this sort of life and this is her book, and she is a well-rounded, but flawed character, flawed like the three Americans she gets to know, yet can they be trusted, especially when tragedy strikes and someone else arrives in the village. If she wants to get away, she is going to have to change, and possibly into someone her family and the rest of the villagers won’t like. She might not even like herself, but that is the price she might have to pay for a different life. Recommended.
See also Steven's take on Untamed Shore.
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