The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas

Cover of The Hacienda by Isabel Ceñas against a white backdrop with a red rose next to it.

I mentioned in an earlier review how much I love Silvia Moreno-Garcia.  Her book, Mexican Gothic, is fantastic and really won me over to gothic novels.  So when I glimpsed The Hacienda on the shelf, I immediately gravitated towards it. 

Set in Mexico in the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence (which ended in 1821), The Hacienda follows a young woman named Beatriz.  Beatriz’s father, a respected general, ended up on the losing side of the war.  As a result, Beatriz and her mother lost their home, their status, and everything they.  In dire financial straits, Beatriz is determined to do whatever it takes to get her mother and herself out of this situation. 

A solution appears in the form of Rodolfo, a wealthy man about whom Beatriz knows very little.  Still, he owns a hacienda, he has good social standing, and he’s enchanted by Beatriz.  Despite her mother’s protests, Beatriz marries him and heads out to the hacienda. 

Beatriz has everything planned out: establish herself as the mistress of the hacienda, make the house a home, and then bring her mother to join her.  But the household – and the house – have other plans.  From the moment she steps through the door, Beatriz gets an ominous feeling.  Rodolfo’s sister seems suspicious, and the kitchen help are constantly burning incense and scratching symbols in the doorways.  Then there’s the mystery of what happened to Rodolfo’s first wife and whether history may be repeating.

While all of this is going on, we meet Padre Andrés, a young Indigenous Catholic priest with deep connections to the hacienda and his own haunted past.  As forces outside their control conspire against them, the priest and the new bride are drawn together. 

This is a fast moving story and even when you have a good guess of what’s going to happen, you still want to keep reading to see how it plays out.  There’s romance, of course – what kind of gothic novel wouldn’t have one? It’s a well-built romance, and one that stays true to the characters and their situations.

Cañas also does a wonderful job of situating readers in the historical landscape of revolutionary Mexico.  Without becoming an academic paper, Cañas interrogates the impact of race and colonialism in Mexican society. It’s a complex topic, and yet it weaves in seamlessly with the story of a haunted house. 

Part of the reason Beatriz jumps at the chance to marry a man like Rodolfo is her awareness that her father’s disgraced reputation in this new order and her darker skin tone significantly limit her marriage prospects.  Meanwhile, Padre Andrés also grapples with his ethnic heritage, the spiritual practices he learned from his grandmother, and the faith instilled in him by the Catholic Church.  The blending of Catholicism and Indigenous beliefs also rang true and was a welcomed addition to the story. 

Most importantly, The Hacienda is a fun, engaging, and enthralling story.  We get to jump between perspectives of Beatriz and Andrés, with a little bit of back and forth through time. Cañas handles both deftly.  There was never a feeling of “ugh, did we have to switch characters” or anything like that.  Instead, the two side complimented each other well and added to the depth of the story. 

The Hacienda is Cañas’ debut novel and if this is her first, I can’t wait to see what she comes out with next!

Find it here

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

by Silvia Morena-Garcia

Book The Daughter of Doctor Moreau set among green leaves and branches.

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. 

Find it online here.

Book Review: Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko

Cover of the book Almanac of the Dead on a table with a white background and pottery behind it.

You should read this book. 

I’m starting with that, because in a minute, I’m going to start listing all the things that make this a difficult book to read and it may sound like I’m encouraging you to ignore it.  I am most definitely not.  But you should be prepared for what you’re getting. 

First and foremost, it’s almost impossible to find a traditional “good guy,” despite the seemingly endless list of characters you meet.  Silko is putting all of humanity’s worst traits on display.  I don’t know if I can even remember all of the potential trigger/content warnings that should be included, but for starters, there’s sexual assault/violence, physical abuse, emotional abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, suicide, sadism, torture, and so on.  In short, this book is an indictment.  Specifically, it is an indictment of 500 years of European/European American colonialism and genocide and the unwillingness of society to recognize those crimes and address their fallout.  As such, those sins continue to rot and fester and spread to everyone.  (Have I sold you on this book yet?)

The overarching story is the efforts of a wide range of Native American characters to fight back against the injustices of a history of Euro-American conquest and those that stand in their way.  The list of characters is, in a word, long, so I won’t even try to go through each of them.  The book is divided into different parts, each introduced tied to a specific geography. Within each, a few chapters are dedicated to one set of characters, which then rolls into a completely different set, which in turn moves to a different location and a different group of people.  But everything cycles back together.  There are sets of twins who each have their own part to play in the fight to retake the lands stolen from them.  Elderly twin sisters Lecha and Zeta serve as an anchor.  From their estate in the Tucson area, they have returned to work on the titular Almanac of the Dead, a collection of pages passed down through generations, marking their history of their tribe (namely the Yaqui), surviving the death and destruction that literally chased the first carriers of these words.  Enduring the ravages of time and the attacks on memory, the book survives, edited and annotated and added to by new guardians until finally it is time for the twins to put it all together.  Living with them are Lecha’s grown son Ferro, a drug runner whom she left when he was a baby for her sister to raise; Sterling, a Laguna Indian who was exiled from his tribe and who is fascinated by Tucson’s gangster history and the story of Geronimo; Seese, a White, drug-addicted woman whose infant son was kidnapped and who hopes that Lecha’s psychic abilities will help her find him; and Paulie, who raises the guard dogs and is one of Ferror’s lovers.  And that’s just one group.  There are flashbacks and side stories and parentheticals, but like the tributaries of a river, the waters eventually all rejoin to flow to the sea.

Silko does a superb job of erasing the artificial boundaries erected between countries.  The border between the U.S. and Mexico matters only inasmuch characters have to deal with the hassle of border guards, but it is very clear that this means nothing to the descendants of those who freely lived in these areas and who had no say in the drawing of lines on maps.  The land itself is an essential part of the stories, and how people treat the land tells us something about them as well. There were several passages I saved because something caught my eye, such as this, where one of the characters we meet in Mexico recalls his Indian grandfather:

“The old man had been interested in what the Europeans thought and the names they had for the planets and stars. He thought the stories accounting for the sun and the planets were interesting only because their stories of explosions and flying fragments were consistent with everything else he had seen: from their flimsy attachments to each other and their children to their abandonment of the land where they had been born. He thought about what the ancestors had called Europeans: their God had created them but soon was furious with them, throwing them out of their birthplace, driving them away. The ancestors had called Europeans ‘the orphan people’ and had noted that as with orphans taken in by selfish or coldhearted clanspeople, few Europeans had remained whole. They failed to recognize the earth was their mother. Europeans were like their first parents, Adam and Eve, wandering aimlessly because the insane God who had sired them had abandoned them.”

Through it all, Silko reminds of historical events (the Haitian Revolution, the Mexican Emperor Maximilian and his wife Charlotte, the dirty wars of the Cold War era, etc.), the prophecies of various indigenous peoples, observations of Europeans and their descendants, and more.  This grand scope storytelling is expertly interwoven with the deeply personal and individual stories of each character, and reminds us of the cyclical nature of life and history.  Buried deep within this exposé of darkness and evil and rot is a note of hope, that eventually history will right itself.  The question is how much suffering must happen before then. 

This was a hard review to write and I don’t feel like I’ve done it justice.  There’s so much to discuss, but no simple way to do so.  I’ve seen academic articles and dissertations devoted exclusively to this book, and that seems about the level of writing I’d have to do if I wanted to fully break this down.  Published in 1992, it resonates today as we slowly, slowly, slowly and haltingly start trying to address our past.  Changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day is only a micro baby step.  To really engage and reckon with our history, our present, and our future, it’ll be uncomfortable.  There’s anger.  And while there’s a vocal segment of society that feels like anything that makes (white) people uncomfortable should be banned, ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.  To quote from the source: “History would catch up with the white man whether the Indians did anything or not.  History was the sacred text.  The most complete history was the most powerful force.”

You should read this book.

Have you read The Almanac of the Dead? What did you think of it? Did you struggle to get through it? Did it stick with you afterwards? Share your views in the comments!

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