A notorious witch’s dead body is discovered in a river by a group of boys in a small Mexican town. The tentacle-like arms of Fernanda Melchor’s narrative grow from this opening scene and slither through the lives of the townspeople, revealing the historical, the recent past, and nothing at all. On one level, Hurricane Season is an unraveling of the events prior to the corpse’s discovery and how she came to die; but more than that, Hurricane Season is an odyssey of all that one cannot know, and the truths that lurk unseen among the grim daily lives of the impoverished people in the town of La Matosa. One could categorize this novel a mystery, but the revelations within render the questions of ‘who did it?’ and ‘why?’ banal.
Most of the 13 chapters are long and follow a character connected to the witch. The original witch: her mother. The rumors and mudslides and deaths and curses that created the witch as she was known before her death. Yesenia, who encounters her cousin Luisma one morning with blood all over his hands and face. Brando, a boy that Luisma galivants around town with, drinking, doing drugs and much more detailed sordid activities. Luisma’s stepfather who escaped a hospital after a bad car accident because:
“The doctors told him they were going to cut it off, and he said no, no fucking way, he didn’t give a shit if it was bent or missing bits of bone, it was his leg and no one was lopping it off and the doctors said nope, no can do, that leg was as good as gone and, besides, the risk of infection was too high, but Munra dug his heels in and with Chabela’s help he escaped from the hospital the day before they were due to hack it off, and in the end made those quack cunts eat their words because his leg never did get infected and it just wound up a little wedged out of place, right?”
That’s one of the book’s shortest sentences. The novel continues on a relentless trajectory of endless sentences—some last more than thirty pages—and it makes the reader feel out of breath and like you can’t put the book down because there is no natural stop and you really, actually, very much want to put the book down because there is a lot of vile shit that’s happening, oh and everyone’s using words like ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ and perhaps you shouldn’t read this in bed next to a partner who is sleeping sweetly because there was that one moment where you uttered ‘fuck’ and he stirred, and then you knew you had to put the book down for the night, but those weird dreams started coming so you had to turn the light on again, especially toward the end of the book when it all devolves more and the actions that lead to the death of the witch—a character you somehow know less about at the end of the book than the beginning—start making you feel sick, particularly Norma’s chapter, but then it gets even worse in Brando’s, of course a dog is brought into it, and then the grime starts to suffocate you even when you’re not reading it and perhaps this isn’t a healthy book, but my god it’s a thing of beauty.
Melchor plays with language deftly; she’s salty and funny and depraved. Her words brim and tremble with hate, and yet it will turn into something comical a line later. Her genius (and that of the translator, Sophie Hughes) lies in the minute, blink-and-you-miss-them details. The sentence in Munra’s chapter when you double-take because you realize he’s telling a story (in the third person) and it’s flying out of him like the sad-sack character he is, and then the tone and wording shifts to something out of a police report, and you realize maybe he’s telling a story while he’s being interrogated. From casual, curse-ridden language to something out of a staid procedural—and then back again, as if the language is telling you where Munra is, and then isn’t, without giving you any locations. All within the same long sentence.
My fascination with the writing is not only from what can be discerned by its shifts in tone, but that which is left in the cracks of what Melchor’s painting. The characters you see one way then mold into something else as the story progresses from different vantage points. The rampant poverty of everyone. The young woman is actually a child. The toxic masculinity choking the women and the men. Religion redeeming no one, interchangeable with superstitious beliefs. Capitalist greed making policemen into detectives of a murdered person’s hidden money, not justice. Homophobia, femicide, incest, and on, and on.
I’m pretty sure this book will haunt me. I remember hearing about book readings in which people would get ‘sick’—passing out or becoming nauseous—while the author read aloud, and I usually rolled my eyes, but this book would probably have that effect on me if I heard it. I could feel the bobbing of bile in my throat at times while reading. I could feel it—the book is visceral and at times lurches at you like a ghost jumping from its desiccated carcass on the side of the dark highway as you careen by. This book includes some of the most revolting imagery and descriptions (I keep typing out some examples and have to remove them), but I continued as if in a trance.
Halfway through reading Hurricane Season my part of the world was instructed to stay at home and quarantine ourselves in an effort to stave off the spreading of COVID-19. Those first days were ones of anxiety and terror; picking up this book amidst that atmosphere felt different. Before, I used to be able to lose myself in Melchor’s sentences, to contemplate the many facets of poverty faced by the people of La Matosa, and after, I would shake my head with self-disgust. At my own privilege, the greed inherent in contemporary life, and that while Melchor may have written fiction, all of the terrible humanity represented within is true. We are so terrible to each other. And perhaps that’s what will haunt me the most about Hurricane Season.
“That’s what the women in town say: there is no treasure in there, no gold or silver or diamonds or anything more than a searing pain that refuses to go away.”
By Fernanda Melchor
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes
226 pages. 2020.
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