Fernanda Melchor is a young Mexican novelist and journalist whose work has been generating some excitement. The award-winning Hurricane Season is her second novel but the first to be translated into English (superbly by Sophie Hughes). Presenting a horror show of humanity in the “wilds” of Mexico, the novel calls to mind the westerns of Cormac McCarthy. Unlike McCarthy, however, Melchor refuses to glamorise – through philosophy or hyperbole – the violent men who populate her narrative world. As such, this novel has a ruthlessness that McCarthy’s work ultimately lacks.
Another characteristic that links Melchor and McCarthy is the vernacular but lyrical brilliance of their prose. Each chapter in Hurricane Season introduces us to a character connected to the enigmatic Witch, whose murder is at the centre of this novel’s titular and metaphorical storm. Melchor conveys the voices of her characters in third person, but she never stands apart from them. Their voices are authentic, like gossip, with that oral quality enhanced by lengthy sentences and a circuitous style of narration. The result is hypnotising but also discomforting, because there is no escape – no point above or beyond the violent and impoverished world of these people.
Despite certain elements of the plot, this is not a magical realist novel. The Witch, like her mother before her, is essentially a herbalist, counsellor and abortionist, who offers her services free to the local sex workers – those “girls all washed up before their time, carried in from some far-flung dump on the same breeze that whipped up the plastic bags”. While the Witch cuts a mysterious figure, her alleged powers are written off by the local men: “Bullshit she’s a witch, they all agreed, the ugly bint just wants some cock, some smart ass would joke, if the Witch wants to suck me off she can start right here, another would say …” As the narrative progresses, the novel reveals a twist regarding the Witch’s identity and those of the men who have relationships with her.
The novel paints a world of corruption, grinding poverty, sexual violence, misogyny, homophobia and self-hatred, where the characters see each other and often themselves as not “fit for anything but fucking and being fucked”. For all its technical virtuosity, this is a gruelling read. But these are gruelling lives that Melchor is attempting to depict here.
Text, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2020 as "Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.