Fernanda Melchor’s English-language debut begins with a cold, hard, unalterable fact: a corpse floating in an irrigation canal, the rotten face a “dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes.” The deceased was known by residents of the village of La Matosa as “the Witch.” She helped local women in need by concocting various lotions and potions. At night, the townsmen would gate-crash her hovel with its bricked-up windows and boarded-up doors and use and abuse her during wild parties.
From this point on the rumor mill kicks in, grinding up all manner of half-baked hearsay and unsubstantiated theories: The Witch fornicated with the devil, she kept a stash of treasure in her home. It gets worse when Melchor brings in certain villagers to give their version of events leading up to the Witch’s murder. For instead of throwing light on the matter, their testimonies muddy the already murky water.
Those testimonies come as thick, ferocious, spleen-venting torrents. Each chapter is devoted to one character, and their tale or tirade unfolds in a single paragraph composed of long, breathless sentences that build in momentum and reach feverish levels of intensity.
The characters emerge as unreliable narrators and sifting their stories for truth proves increasingly futile. After a fashion we learn to suspend disbelief and surrender to the novel’s dark energy and linguistic thrills.
We meet drug-addled loser Luismi. We hear why Yesenia has such loathing for her waste-of-space cousin Maurilio. Some accounts open with a grim state of affairs, before unspooling to present the catalog of woes or horrors which brought about that situation. Thirteen-year-old Norma lies tied to a hospital bed; the narrative then rewinds to recount her mistreatment at the hands of her stepfather and her subsequent escape. Brando huddles in the corner of a fetid prison cell; we then cut back to his squalid sexual awakening and witness the depths he plummeted and the lines he crossed to get his kicks.
“Hurricane Season” is not for the squeamish. Pages are packed with expletives. People are scarred or broken. Whole lives are ruined by appalling violence, cruelty and degradation. The fictitious Mexican town, in thrall to superstition and poverty, offers no hope, no redemption, and definitely no way out. At the start of each successive chapter we brace ourselves for a fresh onslaught of pain and profanity, sound and fury, hardship and despair.
And yet despite the book’s terrifying vision and depressing scenarios, it is difficult to turn away. Melchor is regarded as one of Mexico’s most talented young writers and her unflinching, no-holds-barred depictions of warped humanity have the same power as her eponymous hurricane, hitting us again and again with “bitter, hellacious force.” Shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize and brilliantly translated by Sophie Hughes, this incendiary novel continues to burn and leave its mark long after the last page.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Fernanda Melchor, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes.
Publisher: New Directions, 224 pages, $22.95.