Is there a contemporary writer more chameleonic than Silvia Moreno-Garcia? Her breakout novel, the New York Times-bestselling "Mexican Gothic," is a gothic horror tale set in 1950s Mexico; last year's "Velvet Was the Night," is a 1970s noir.
Her previous work skips genres and times with similar fluidity. Now, Moreno-Garcia's enthralling new novel, "The Daughter of Doctor Moreau," deftly blends 19th-century science fiction with a 21st-century sensibility.
Drawing inspiration from H.G. Wells' 1896 mad-scientist story "The Island of Doctor Moreau," "The Daughter of Doctor Moreau" makes a number of ingenious adaptations to Wells' tale about a scientist on an island who practices vivisection to create human-animal hybrids. Moreno-Garcia imagines that this island is actually the Yucatan peninsula, allowing the book to use a real historical conflict, The Yucatan Caste War, as a backdrop. This puts the political ramifications of the hybrids' otherness into even sharper relief.
At the novel's start, Moreau is looking for a new mayordomo to manage his property, Yaxaktun. He has been financed by his patron, Hernando Lizalde, to refine his hybrid research and creation. Moreau tells Lizalde the hybrids are being created to become workers and he needs a mayordomo to take care of day-to-day operations. The only other family he has to help is a brother in France that he hardly speaks to, and his teen daughter, Carlota, who has no one but her distracted father and the hybrids for company.
Moreno-Garcia alternates chapters between the points of view of Carlota and the mayordomo, Montgomery, who is running from his own demons in the form of a heartbreak back in England, and who is happy to drown his sorrows in alcohol. The bulk of the action takes place six years after Montgomery's arrival. Despite the fact that Yaxaktun is located near rebel territory in the Caste War, they have settled into a peaceful existence — until Hernando Lizalde's son shows up looking for an "Indian raiding party" he thinks has passed by Yaxaktun and finds instead the beautiful Carlota and the mysterious Doctor Moreau.
If you're a they-don't-make-'em-like-they-used-to type of reader who longs for the romance and high drama of big 19th-century novels, "The Daughter of Doctor Moreau" is a flawless replica. But like the best historical fiction, this novel also speaks to the heart of what contemporary readers turn to literature for, as it draws out the colonial and racial implications of Moreau's "research," enlarging Wells' own moral message. Ultimately, it's a good thing Moreno-Garcia is so prolific: It's likely we won't have to wait too long to see where she'll take us next.
Colleen Abel has written for Lit Hub, Huffington Post and many other venues. She is the author of three collections of poetry and is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University.
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau
By: Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
Publisher: Del Ray, 306 pages, $28.