A Mexican Novel Conjures a Violent World Tinged With Beauty

Melchor has an exceptional gift for ventriloquism, as does her translator, Sophie Hughes, who skillfully meets the challenge posed by a novel so rich in idiosyncratic voices. Rage, anxiety and a contempt laced with carnival humor are the keynotes, whether it’s Brando’s spite for his mother’s church — where women who catch the spirit “writhe around like a fumigated centipede” — or the virtuosic slut shaming of Yesenia by her grandmother, who hacks off her beautiful hair with poultry shears for trying to impugn her beloved grandson’s morals. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself,” she raves, “whoring around and then pointing the finger at your cousin?”

“Hurricane Season” belongs to the Gothic-grotesque tradition of the transnational American South. The novel’s tortured self-deceptions and sprung-trap revelations evoke the stories of Flannery O’Connor, or, more recently, the neuroses of Marlon James’s Kingston gunmen in “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” In an interview about that novel, James spoke about the need to “risk pornography” in the portrayal of violence — and Melchor certainly does. At times, she enters so deeply into the psyche of sexual violence that she skirts the voyeurism risked by any representation of cruelty.

In his posthumously published novel “2666,” Roberto Bolaño deployed a device of alienating repetition to narrate the murders of women in Mexico, clinically detailing so many cases that they begin to lose their tabloid charge. By contrast, “Hurricane Season” is saturated with the language of abuse: men ecstatically molesting their daughters; boys boasting about how exactly they’ll rape a friend who they’ve heard is “ the engineer’s twink”; an irate grandmother who threatens her disobedient girls with the specter of “lesbians with brooms” assaulting them in juvie.

By design, Melchor offers little vantage beyond this world of predators and violently prejudiced prudes. Neither type seems able to decouple desire from extraction and domination. The crime is not an act but an entire atmosphere, which Melchor captures in language as though distilling venom. Sometimes, though, this claustrophobic style breaks like a fever, yielding to flights of mesmerically expansive prose. A flashback to the Witch’s adolescence describes her admiring some young workers in the cane fields: “The Witch spied on them … veil raised in order to see them better, smell them better, taste — in her imagination — the brackish scent of those young men wafting in the air around the plains, carried along by the breeze that made the leaves on the sugar cane rustle … the breeze that, come Holy Innocents, would start to smell of burnt caramel, of scorched earth, and that seemed to usher the slow roll of the last trucks loaded up with immense bales of blackened cane, which disappeared in the direction of the Mill, under that gray, gray sky, when at last the boys could put away their machetes, not even rinsing them first, and rush to the highway to burn their wages.”

Offering such glints of transcendence at the edge of an ugly killing, Melchor creates a narrative that not only decries an atrocity but embodies the beauty and vitality it perverts.

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