Review: Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (translated by Sophie Hughes)

A group of boys walk down a riverside path between sugarcane fields on the steamy coastal plains of Mexico. Coming to an irrigation ditch, they find a body in the water, blotted and rotting, its throat savaged and face writhing with black snakes. It’s a visceral way to open a book, but Hurricane Season, like the weather phenomena in its title, only gathers force and intensity as the book progresses, unleashing hell on earth.

Hurricane Season is set pretty much now in the village of La Matosa, which loosely translates as “the bush”. It is not so far in mode from gothic horror stories of the Australian bush, that great expanse that terrified settlers with its featurelessness full of folk monsters. Oil companies have moved into the sugarcane lands, building highways enabling the movement of drugs and sex work. Drug cartels hold the ultimate power, corrupting everything – industry, police and politics.

The victim is a woman known only as the Witch, and the novel takes the form of a series of testimonies or confessionals from four characters who know something about why she was murdered. All are connected to a young man known as Luismi, usually found drugged to his eyeballs in the local park. There’s his cousin Yesenia, his step-father Munra, his 13-year-old child-bride Norma, and his friend Brando. Their testimonies come pouring out in breathless sentences that go for paragraphs at a time, full of cursing, idiom, and folk nightmare. It is riveting writing, and Melchor is running a very tight ship, picking up all the threads and weaving them together in an ending that, if not exactly warm and fuzzy, is very satisfying. Sophie Hughes has rendered every curse into florid and ribald English.

It is a heightened world of poverty and violence – with the horrifying question mark looming over it that maybe it is not heightened at all. This is a book that has not met a taboo that can’t be broken. Substance abuse, sex work, rape, abortion, witchcraft, paedophilia, bestiality, murder and torture in their most extreme forms, particularly of women – all are depicted matter-of-factly. It is the anti-Coco, a world defined by the almost complete absence of tenderness.

Aware of the controversy that greeted American Dirt and its apparently similarly lurid (and by many accounts appropriative) depiction of Mexico, I wonder what Melchor is up to here. On the surface, it seems standard Mexploitation fare. Clearly she is saying something about the way violence trickles down from those in power. Mentioned only in passing, the book’s most violent murders are the rumours of young girls used by the narcos, then dismembered and disposed, ending up in roadside empanadas. But it is not just drug violence, there is also the legacy of slavery and colonisation, visible through the varied genealogies of the town’s inhabitants and buried monuments that surface during landslides.

There is also just possibly a thread about climate change in here, turning towards the future. The novel’s main timeline takes places in the build up to hurricane season, but this year it has gone on unusually long, “they say the heat’s driven the locals crazy – that it’s not normal – May and not a single drop of rain.” It’s thought that increasing heat does indeed escalate violence.

Salvation here comes in odd forms. The novel’s tenderest relationships involve Luismi and Norma (who gets points for not raping her), Norma and Luismi’s mother Chabela (who seems to be grooming her for sex work), Chabela and Munra (who have a tacit arrangement that she can fuck whoever she wants) and Luismi and Brando, a homoerotic friendship that is best expressed by Brando’s desire for “fucking and killing each other, maybe the two things at once”. Even as its characters dream of escape – to the city, to the coast, to the north – Death seems to be the only way out of this hell.

Hurricane Season is startling not just for its violence but also its exceptionally graphic depiction of sexuality. What begins as a seemingly straight murder mystery rapidly becomes very queer. The Witch was born a man – whether she identifies as trans is never specified (none of the sexualities in Hurricane Season conform to our Western LGBTIQ+ alphabet). She hosts parties in her decrepit house for all the village’s young men, where she plies them with drugs in return for occasional sex.

In fact paying men for sex is completely normalised in the village – at Carnival, all the village boys take money for queer men to give them oral sex. However there is a clear line between the men (who penetrate) and those sub-humans who are penetrated (whether men or women). The Witch, Brando, and Luismi are all flirting with danger in crossing this line. Which is to say nothing of the women, who are expected to be no more than receptacles. To have sex for pleasure is simply unimaginable for the men, although the novel’s two female testimonies say otherwise. Melchor reveals something fundamental about the violence that deviations from masculinity face, violence that is often turned inwards or onto other queer people and women.

Melchor was born in Veracruz, where the novel appears to be set, and has won awards for her journalism. The book’s blurb says it was inspired by “a real event”, which suggests it is tackling Mexico’s epidemic of “the disappeared” – the tens of thousands of people who have disappeared during the country’s drug wars, often to appear in unmarked graves. Perhaps then Hurricane Seasons is simply a work of truth-telling, of reportage, of speaking out about something forbidden. Whatever it is – and the novel doesn’t lend itself to easy answers – it is a horrifying and thrilling writing.

Gay rating: 5/5 for major queer characters and depictions of queer lives and desires.

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