(2023) Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Jo Fletcher Books, £14.99, trdpbk, 282pp, ISBN 978-1-529-42631-1
The opening sentence of this novel by the author of the Nebula short-listed, British Fantasy and Locus award winning Mexican Gothic sets the tone: ĎThe beach smelled of death.í The beach in question lies just outside the small town of Desengaño in Baja California, Mexico; the death is that of the sharks caught and skinned by the local fishermen; and the person observing it all is the young woman, Viridiana, who dreams of escaping her life, pinched as it is between the desert and the sea. Named by her absent father after a Buñuel film and constantly recalling scenes from old black and white Hollywood movies that she used to watch with her grandmother, Viridianaís circumstances are delimited by her motherís shop, that beach and the occasional visit to a friend of her fatherís who allows her to borrow books from his personal library. Thatís how she learned to speak English, French and Dutch and becomes the personal assistant to a wealthy American who rents the house up on the cliff, with the aim of writing his memoirs. Accompanying Ambrose is his wife, Daisy, and a handsome young man who is introduced as her brother, Gregory. And because Ambrose wants Viridiana on hand 24/7, in case inspiration should strike, she moves into the guest room, and with that, all the elements of a tightly constrained crime story are in place.
Viridianaís days are spent taking dictation or accompanying the trio to the beach. But in the evenings, she finds herself pursued and seduced by Gregory who convinces her that someday heíll take her away, perhaps even to Paris. As the relationship progresses, however, both the reader and Viridiana herself begin to sense that there are things moving in the depths beneath the languorous surface of life in the house. Inevitably, it seems, the brutality bursts through and Viridiana becomes complicit in the resulting cover-up. Now it seems she is doubly trapped, both within the judgmental circles of her family and neighbours and also by the increasingly tense relationships within the house. However, Viridiana is no longer the ingénue she seemed at the beginning and human sharks can also be caught, and skinned.
Viridiana has few resources to call upon, except her intelligence, her understanding of human nature, and her fierce desire to be free. The shifts in her perception of the world and of herself, as she comes to accept that she is not playing a character in some glamorous movie, are deftly handled and if, by the conclusion, the readerís initial sympathy for her and her situation have fallen by the dusty wayside, there remains, at least, an appreciation that desperate circumstances call for desperate measures. As she says at the end, back on that hot beach, with the shark carcasses in the distance and blue, unblemished skies above, ďA stormís comingĒ and that sense of oppressiveness, of tension that is about to break, is beautifully conveyed.
A perfect noir novel, albeit of a certain sun-bleached kind.
See also Ian's take on Untamed Shore.
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