Is there a contemporary writer more chameleon than Silvia Moreno-Garcia? His seminal novel, New York Times bestseller Mexican Gothic, is a gothic horror tale set in 1950s Mexico; Last year’s “Velvet Was the Night” is a film noir from the 1970s.
His previous work skips genres and eras with a similar fluidity. Now, Moreno-Garcia’s thrilling new novel, “Doctor Moreau’s Daughter,” deftly blends 19th-century science fiction with 21st-century sensibility.
Drawing inspiration from H. G. Wells’ 1896 mad scientist story “The Island of Doctor Moreau”, “Doctor Moreau’s Daughter” makes a number of ingenious adaptations of Wells’ story about a scientist on a island that practices vivisection to create human-animal hybrids. Moreno-Garcia imagines that this island is actually the Yucatan Peninsula, allowing the book to use a real historical conflict, the Yucatan Caste War, as its backdrop. This further highlights the political ramifications of hybrid otherness.
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At the beginning of the novel, Moreau is looking for a new mayordomo to manage his property, Yaxaktun. He was funded by his patron, Hernando Lizalde, to refine his hybrid research and creation. Moreau tells Lizalde that hybrids are created to become workers and that he needs a butler to take care of day-to-day operations. The only other family he has to help is a brother in France who he barely talks to, and his teenage daughter, Carlota, who only has her distracted father and the hybrids for company.
Moreno-Garcia alternates chapters between the views of Carlota and the butler, Montgomery, who is fleeing his own demons in the form of heartache in England, and who is happy to drown his sorrows in alcohol. The bulk of the action takes place six years after Montgomery’s arrival. Despite the fact that Yaxaktun is located near rebel territory in the Caste War, they have settled into a peaceful existence – until Hernando’s son Lizalde shows up looking for an “Indian raiding party “which he thinks he has passed through Yaxaktun and instead finds the beautiful Carlota and the mysterious Doctor Moreau.
If you’re the type that doesn’t make them the way you used to and longs for the romance and drama of great 19th-century novels, “Doctor Moreau’s Daughter” is an impeccable cue. But like the best historical fiction, this novel also speaks to the heart of what contemporary readers turn to literature for, as it brings out the colonial and racial implications of Moreau’s “research,” expanding Wells’ own moral message. . In the end, it’s a good thing that Moreno-Garcia is so prolific: it’s likely we won’t have to wait too long to see where she takes us next.
Colleen Abel is the author of three books of poetry and is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University.