*Warning: Spoilers Abound*
When it comes to books about Mexico, readers too often look for one that will make them feel better about the border crisis. Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, now published in English from New Directions, will not assuage your guilt; there’s no forgiveness in this novel. That doesn’t, however, mean it lacks empathy. Melchor demands real empathy, the kind that requires you to fully immerse yourself in the suffering of others. The kind that requires you look at everyone’s part in the suffering and not obviate your own responsibility.
The novel begins with discovery: the discovery of a murdered woman, dubbed the Witch, in an irrigation canal in the fictional village of Villagarbosa. Vividly written, the opening will instantly help you decide if you’ll like the novel. The chapter runs four pages, one paragraph of sentences that run on for lines and lines. Each chapter (of eight), in fact, is one sprawling paragraph; this is one of the shortest. The children who discover the body have “their slingshots drawn for battle and their eyes squinting, almost stitched together, in the midday glare” before they happen on “the rotten face of a corpse floating among the rushes and the plastic bags swept in from the road on the breeze, the dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes, smiling.”
Despite the labyrinthine writing, this book isn’t a complete investigation of the epidemic of femicide that has plagued Mexico for decades—at least not in the way that Bolaño’s 2666 is. Instead, Melchor focuses on one murder and draws a complex portrait of the characters and circumstances that surround it: the crime is the eye of the hurricane; the characters and influences are the storm itself. The five middle chapters that make up the bulk of the novel centre on characters involved in the crime in some way. There’s Yesenia, the witness; Luismi and Brando, the murderers; Munra, the accomplice; and Norma, one of the causes of the murder. Luismi, the Witch’s lover, falls in love with Norma. Norma’s thirteen, fleeing her sexually abusive stepfather, and pregnant. Luismi’s mother takes her to the Witch for an abortion, the potion sends her to the hospital. Brando, who’s concocted a scheme to rob the Witch, finally convinces Luismi to help once the latter learns how Norma ended up in the hospital. Brando himself has fallen in love with Lusimi, but he refuses to admit it even to himself, so full of self-loathing. This self-loathing leads him to his role in the murder of a woman he hates for her transness.
In a moment that calls to mind Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily,” the police, who care nothing about justice for the Witch and only about finding her rumoured treasure, uncover the rotting corpse of the Witch’s mother—the original Witch—in a room behind a locked door that earlier Luismi and Brando couldn’t open, despite Herculean efforts. This moment is somehow even more loaded than Faulkner’s story. It not only paints the horrifying grief that’s been plaguing the Witch since her mother’s death, but also it reveals the villainous corruption of the police who care nothing about justice and the state who let a person descend into Hell. “They say that neither Rigorito nor his men could stand the spectacle awaiting them there: the black mummy of the Old Witch lying supine in the middle of the solid oak bed, the corpse that began to flake and crumble right before their eyes, ending up a heap of bone and hair.” The body literally wastes away before the corrupt eyes of the police.
While Brando’s internal homophobia and outward transphobia and Luismi’s love for Norma are potential reasons for the Witch’s murder, ultimately, this is a crime of desperation. Before they hatch the plan to rob the Witch, Luismi’s escape plan is to get a job at one of the new factories in Villagarbosa—an unfulfilled promise made to him by a man paying him for sex. The area around the village has become industrialized and gentrified—a new highway brings in factory workers from across Mexico; the citizens of Villargabosa have been left behind. There are many reasons the murder takes place: homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, passion, poverty, failures of capitalism and government. For Melchor, the reasons are everything.
The novel’s strength also lies in what makes it difficult. It is a thorough, almost surgical investigation into the nature of violence. In order to do this, Melchor plumbs the depths of the psyches of her characters, broken and wretched. Violence, like the novel, is cyclical and spiralling; it surrounds everything. The characters are haunted by their trauma, abused by their social conditions, desperate for escape. The language reflects that: vulgar, violent, rapid, and ceaseless. Melchor wants us to see people in all their horror, to ask us how they got here. Barely offering us a chance to breathe, she dares us to look away.