by Silvia Morena-Garcia
The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells, is one of those stories where even if you haven’t read the book, you likely know the broad strokes of the plot: a crazed scientists conducts horrible experiments on a remote island, resulting in strange human/animal hybrids. There have been movies and references and even a Simpsons parody. But you can ignore all of those and dive straight into Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s reimagining take, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. It is a spellbinding tale, centering Doctor Moreau’s heretofore unknown daughter as she navigates the dangers coming her way.
Carlota Moreau is a smart, stubborn, and curious young woman. The natural child of Doctor Moreau, she has never traveled outside her father’s estate, Yaxaktun, in the remote Yucatán Peninsula. Her only human contacts are her father, his patron Hernando Lizalde, Ramona the servant woman, and the various mayordomos brought in to oversee the estate. But those are far from her only companions. There are a host of hybrids, the results of her father’s experiments, whom she knows and loves.
As our story begins, a new mayordomo, a British man named Montgomery Laughton arrives at Yaxaktun. The isolation of Yaxaktun, and the Yucatán in general, make it difficult to find hired help. As Ramon explains to Carlota, it is not a place for people who want to be found. But that seems to suit Mr. Laughton just fine.
Six years later, however, more newcomers arrive at the remote estate and very quickly, the isolated routines of Yaxaktun begin to fall apart. There is more to this island her father created, and Carlota will seek the truth – whatever the cost.
The book switches between Carlota and Montgomery’s perspective. This effectively gives us a good background into both and understanding for their motives. At times, the story loops back on itself so we get both characters’ insights into the exact same scene. Had this been overdone, it might have been frustrating, but Moreno-Garcia uses it sparingly and to great effect.
I first read Silvia Moreno-Garcia‘s The Gods of Jade and Shadow. I quickly fell in love with her writing style and her characters. I’ve since read The Beautiful Ones, Certain Dark Things, Mexican Gothic, Untamed Shore, and Velvet was the Night, her previous book before The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. Pick any of them and jump right in – they don’t disappoint! Moreno-Garcia does a fantastic job of creating amazing settings for her characters to inhabit and giving her heroines (and other characters) a plethora of emotions, motives, virtues, and vices. Weaving in romantic story lines can be tricky, but she handles them deftly and beautifully.
I also really appreciate the glimpses of Mexican history that she peppers through her novels. In the background of The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, the rebellion of Mayans against European and Mexican forces lurks, with some of the hybrids whispering the name of the famous (or infamous, depending on one’s perspective) leader. While Carlota has the privilege of long ignoring politics and social issues, the hybrids do not.
And where Wells focused on issues of the search for knowledge and abuse in the name of science and man’s desire to dominate his environment and the creatures around him, Moreno-Garcia uses the hybrids to dissect issues of colonialism, racism, and labor exploitation. As Hernando Lizalde explains early on in the book, he is only supporting Doctor Moreau’s experiments because the hybrids could be the key to the labor issues on the haciendas. The Indians, he explains, can no longer be trusted in light of the rebellion, and with the end of the slave trade and the poor track record of European laborers, a “home grown” labor force designed for exploitation seems to be the perfect ticket. While the doctor agreed to such a use, it is clear he has his own motives for his experiments. But are they any better?
Overall, I highly recommend The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. And then the rest of her books.