Review: Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

Mexico’s newest luminary author delivers a supernaturally charged murder investigation

Ascendent Mexican author Fernanda Melchor makes her English-language translation debut with “Hurricane Season,” a whirling novel that rages ahead from the first page, when a group of boys discovers the town’s Witch floating dead in a drainage ditch. In chapter-long chunks of text, Melchor illustrates a troubled town’s response to this socially fraught incident of foul play. Translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes, the book’s profanity-laden pages sustain its sense of dismal fury.

Set for release by New Directions on March 31, the story investigates the Witch’s murder through the stories of degenerate characters that populate the small town outside of Veracruz, Mexico. Rumored to horde gold coins, perform abortions and host sex parties, the town’s Witch embodies a veritable scapegoat at which the villagers can aim their ire. When the Witch’s murder leaves the town without a bogeywoman, the local gossips fill the resulting blame vacuum with vicious hearsay.

The story then zooms into a complicated familial strife. Hanging laundry between stints tending to her ailing grandmother, Yessenia spots from the yard her deadbeat cousin Luismi – who had a history of trysts with the Witch before a money dispute ended things between them – carrying the Witch’s limp body from the sorceress’s house. She watches Luismi deposit the corpse into her half-uncle Munra’s unmistakable van, embroiling her family in the crime. As she cradles her dying grandmother, the old woman curses Yessenia for allowing Luismi to accessorize himself to a murder that will land him in jail while Munra grapples with how to face his cheating lover Chabela amid making sense of his unwitting role in the crime. The ensuing polyphonic squall of rumors pelts the reader in an onslaught of caustic prose that translator Sophie Hughes seasons with slang culled from across the English-speaking world.

That a quasi-plausible witch exists in a story that takes place in a world where texting, viral videos and AIDS shape the lives of its characters colors the events with a patina of retrospection, a subtle stylistic sleight of hand that underscores the story’s complexity.

The book’s title alludes to its spiraling structure of intensifying conflicts, (To a lesser degree the title may also nod to Veracruz’s geographic propensity for fielding tropical storms.) The perpetrators are revealed as the text attempts to illuminate a motive for the crime, implicating the entire town. The formal choice of block text and single-paragraph chapters visually reinforces the gravity of solving why this ghastly femicide took place. The urgency is palpable.

Melchor drew true-crime inspiration for the novel from a murder case that stirred ruminations of witchcraft outside of Veracruz. The suspected murderer in the news story allegedly killed a witch to dispel the black magic she intended to use to lure the suspect back into love with her. Weary of the inevitable dangers from poking around a village policed by cartel, Melchor tactfully abandoned the crime’s nonfiction ambitions and opted instead to capture its most compelling elements via fiction.

Intentional or not, Melchor represents the townspeople as culpable for playing roles in a morally destitute environment where such a murder is allowed to transpire. In this way, indicting the citizens along with the murder suspects echoes García Márquez’s “Chronicle of A Death Foretold,” another book that similarly intimates the impossibility of collective atonement.

Circling around a murder that unfolds less as a mystery than an exploration, the book’s stylistic parallels to László Krasznahorkai’s novel “Satantango” resonate through its choice of block text to exhibit a village in ethical peril. (Krazsnahorkai’s book ended up winning the 2015 Man Booker International Prize; Hughes’s translation of Melchor’s novel made the longlist for this year’s International Prize.)

Think of Melchor’s “Hurricane Season” as a literary approximation of indulging in the kind of televised natural disaster coverage compelling in its depravity. Finishing this manic, gripping novel may instigate a desire for a long, hot shower.

About the author

Al Jacobs is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in The Stranger. He lives in Harlem and studies at Columbia University.

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