Robyn Reviews: Velvet Was The Night

‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a historical noir novel set in 1970s Mexico, a place of student protests and massive political unrest. It provides an intriguing insight into a piece of history rarely portrayed in fiction, and like all Silvia Moreno-Garcia novels is sharply written. Noir isn’t a genre I read particularly often, but for fans or those looking for a taut piece of historical fiction this is a solid read.

Mexico City, sometime in the 1970s. The government is cracking down on student protests, often forcefully, with shadowy gangs enlisted to do the dirty work. Elvis – a pseudonym only – has found himself part of one of these gangs, roughing up reporters and stealing information for his boss. It’s not the life he dreamed of, but it got him out of his dead-end hometown and he’s determined to never go back. At first glance, Elvis has little in common with Maite – a secretary who lives for vinyl records and the comic series ‘Secret Romance’. However, the disappearance of a student protestor named Leonora sets both of them on a path to find her. Against a backdrop of violence, hitmen, and simmering secrets, their lives draw inexorably closer – and Elvis finds himself captivated by a woman who shares both his love of rock and roll and the loneliness in his heart.

‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a brutal story. Elvis is the ultimate anti-hero – a gangster beating up journalists and students just on his boss’s say-so. Moreno-Garcia does a wonderful job getting the reader to sympathise with him despite his violent actions. Elvis is obsessed with rock and roll and the West – idolising Elvis Presley- and dreams of success in a childlike, abstract way. He uses music to escape from the harsh reality of his life. Elvis is young and naive, and while he’s not always a nice character he’s one it’s easy to feel sorry for and root for.

Maite, on the other hand, is a self-deprecating woman to the extent it occasionally gets on the reader’s nerves. Just turning thirty, Maite adores romance – she troves through romantic comics, especially ‘Secret Romance’, and despairs of the fact that she still hasn’t found someone to share her life with. She has an independent streak, but – possibly due to the opinions of her family and society at large – hates herself for what she perceives as her inadequacies. She’s not pretty enough, not smart enough, not good enough at conversation. Maite is a perfectly average young woman and that drives her to despair. Like Elvis, it’s easy to feel sorry for Maite – but she’s harder to root for, especially as she inevitably makes terrible choices.

The best part of this book is the setting. Moreno-Garcia paints an incredible picture of 1970s Mexico, transporting the reader to a slice of history where danger lurks around every corner yet the mundanity of everyday life trundles on. There’s the constant fear of riots and the police, but also ordinary struggles like paying the mechanic and dealing with nagging parents. The dichotomy works beautifully, and whilst this is exaggerated pulp fiction its based on fact and those influences are fascinating.

The plot is entertaining. Most of the twists are easily guessable, but there are a few surprises, and this is intrinsically designed to be an easy-read book rather than one with too much hidden below the surface. It’s the perfect read after a long day when you want to switch off and not think too much. There are lots of references to the rock and roll scene – not something I’m familiar with, but fans will likely appreciate them.

The main weakness is a certain degree of separation between the reader and the characters. Maite and Elvis always feel like characters rather than fully rounded people. They’re a little too caricaturic – especially Maite. It’s still enjoyable, and it’s definitely a noir rather than a character study – but it would be nice if Maite was taken a little outside her romance-loving secretary stereotype.

Overall, ‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a solid noir novel with an intriguing historical basis and lots of references to the rock and roll music scene. It highlights once again Moreno-Garcia’s sheer versatility as a novelist, and provides a peek at a slice of history rarely referenced in modern media. Recommended for fans of noir and thriller novels along with those looking for a readable piece of historical fiction.

Thanks to NetGalley and Jo Fletcher Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the contents of this review

More Silvia Moreno-Garcia reviews can be found here: Mexican Gothic, The Beautiful Ones

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 17th August 2021

Book Review: Ramifications

Ramifications, by Daniel Saldaña París (translated by Christina MacSweeney), is a story narrated by a psychologically bedbound thirty-four year old man. He is trying to deal with pivotal events that occurred when he was ten years old by writing down his memories of the time and the effect they had on him. Set in the Educación neighbourhood of Mexico City, the boy’s life changed when his mother, Theresa, left the family home one lunchtime during the summer holidays, never to return. The boy’s father did not explain to his two children why she had left, although the elder child, fifteen year old Mariana, may have understood better. The strength of this tale is the depiction of the emotions and concerns of a ten year old boy – how the lens through which he sees his world is insular, imaginative and self-centred.

The boy’s interests include reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and he enjoys the idea that, if faced with challenges, he could become an admired hero. As his mother leaves during the school holidays, when the boy’s best friend is away from the city, he fondly imagines how he will share what has happened to cast himself as a figure to be revered by classmates. When Mariana is tasked with looking after her brother while their father is at work, the boy meets her teenage friends including Rat, a person he equates with risk and influence. He conjures impressive scenarios from the ether that he looks forward to recounting. What actually transpires is a journey that forces the boy to confront how unlike the hero of his imagination he actually is – an unmasking with negative and lasting impact.

The boy is also attempting – and failing – to create objects using origami. He becomes obsessed with symmetry and how rare it is under close observation. These distractions do not cover the damage caused by his mother’s defection. He cannot articulate, or even fully recognise, what is happening to him. It is only from his bed in the future that he will try to unpick events and how they stymied his development.

The writing style is perfectly pitched and structured to offer fascinating glimpses of a past life that may now be influenced by hindsight. The reader is made aware early in the tale of key moments, of resulting difficulties, yet there is always some new aspect to reveal. As the narrator digs deeper into the cause and effects of his parents’ actions, his ten year old self is presented in a light few writers I have read could master. It is a reminder to adults that children are not just smaller versions of themselves.

The story drew me in from the beginning but acquired impressive depth as it progressed. Its power is all the more admirable for its brevity, accomplished with no compromise to the richness of language and affect. So much of this resonated, leaving much to ponder. The denouement provided satisfying completion whilst allowing the reader to imagine beyond the final page.

It is books such as these that make me want to read more translated fiction. Another fine offering from a quality publisher that I heartily recommend.

Ramifications is published by Charco Press.

Robyn Reviews: Mexican Gothic

“Open your eyes.”

Mexican Gothic is a beautifully crafted work of gothic horror. The writing is exquisite, the images created eerily beautiful, and reading it makes you feel uncomfortable yet unable to look away. It feels both original and a tribute to novels of the past – it could have come straight out of its 1950s setting. An absolute triumph of imagination and wordcraft.

The protagonist, Noemí , is a Mexican socialite, living a life of balls and luxury in Mexico City. Her father – the owner of a large dye company – would like her to marry, but Noemí  is too busy having fun to consider anything so serious. However, when her father receives a worrying letter from her newly-married cousin, Catalina, Noemí  finds herself sent to a crumbling mansion in rural Mexico where nothing is quite as it seems.

Noemí  makes an excellent protagonist – naturally inquisitive and with an impressive level of self-confidence and entitlement. She spends most of the book completely out of her depth but remains determined to find out what’s going on and ensure her cousin’s safety – an enviable level of loyalty. The supporting cast – Catalina, her husband Virgil, and her husband’s siblings Florence and Francis – are enigmatic and intriguing, but Noemí  remains the highlight.

It’s the imagery which makes this book. Moreno-Garcia weaves pictures which are simultaneously grotesque and stunning. She never quite confirms what is real, leaving it to the reader to make up their own mind. There’s a level of detachment from the characters, not allowing full understanding of what they’re thinking – but rather than making the characters seem underwritten, this maintains the air of mystery and illusion that makes the book so spectacular. It’s never clear what role any individual character plays or what their true motivations are, making it impossible to predict what’s going to happen next.

I loved the setting in rural 1950s Mexico. Mexico isn’t somewhere I’m familiar with, but it was interesting getting an insight into a place we rarely see portrayed in fiction. Noemí, used to a city with a stark class divide, is as new to rural Mexico as the reader, lending a fresh perspective.

The plot twists and turns. In many ways, Mexican Gothic is a classic haunted house story, but it avoids the pitfalls of predictability and horror for the sake of horror. Even at the end, some things are left unexplained – this is not the sort of book which needs to be tied up in a neat little bow.

If you like mystery, and horror, and books where nothing is as it seems, this is the perfect book for you – but maybe don’t read it after dark.

 

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 30th June 2020