[Book Review]: Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Daughter of Doctor Moreau
Twisting the classics into new life
No one weaves an atmosphere quite like Silvia Moreno-Garcia. At once lavish and dark, her ability to paint the dark underbelly of romance is spellbinding. So it was with Mexican Gothic, a book it took me entirely too long to commit to but which I devoured in a single day, and so it is with her latest dive into sweltering lands ripe with secrets and passions, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau.
I have been following this book’s path since the announcement of its title alone, so to have been given the opportunity to review it was a gift at a time when I most needed it. Tying together the darkest sides of the Gothic with its headiest romantic elements is a tried and true cocktail of success for me, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia has proven once again to be a master of just such a combination. More than a simple reinvention of HG Wells’ original work of disturbing science fiction, Moreno-Garcia presents a world rich with culture and longing, though it be a culture those off the island can never fully understand. Daughter of Doctor Moreau is one part Gothic romance, one part sci-fi horror, and one part exploration of the war in the Yucatán between Mayan natives and the inhabitants of European descent who held economic control.
Carlotta Moreau, daughter of the possibly-mad but well-financed scientist who spends his time developing the perfect man-animal hybrid, lives on the secluded island with her father, siblings, and a smattering of servants, wholly uninterested in the world outside the island, though consumed with the need to be her father’s perfect daughter. When Montgomery Laughton joins the staff, he watches in horrified fascination as he takes on roles to help care for Moreau’s experiments, eventually resigned to his work and fate thanks to a troubled past that plagues him and a fondness for alcohol he cannot seem to shake. Laughton develops a closeness with Carlotta as she grows up, and the two similar personalities with differing backgrounds often balance each other out even as they butt heads.
Laughton soon becomes fiercely protective of Carlotta and her home as the overbearing and entitled son of Moreau’s benefactor shows up to interrogate them on potential Mayan passage and sneak a peek at Moreau’s secrets. What unfolds from the clash, and from Carlotta’s increasing curiosity over her father’s work, is a rich tapestry of romance and scathing critique of what happens when social mores are challenged from all angles. From illness and monstrosity to questions of humanity and worthiness tied to race and social class, this is no ordinary monster story, and no ordinary retelling of a classic.
Moreno-Garcia’s island inhabitants are, even at their worst, still complex and sympathetic characters. Most of them long for a life outside which they believe they can never have thanks to their dependence on the Doctor’s medicine to keep them alive, though they are willing to fight for the chance to see a world outside their luxurious confines. Even the Doctor himself, stricken with tragedy of family lost and hungry to pursue the secrets of life with the Frankensteinian passion that can only ever be doomed to fail even as he succeeds, is by turns painted as both egomaniac (as in the church scenes) and doting, ever-scarred and scared father to unusual children. Such twists in character development leave Daughter of Doctor Moreau an enticing read from first page to last.
Perhaps predictably, on a personal level, the thread which struck me most in this Moreau was Carlotta’s. Plagued with vague memories of a mysterious illness from which her father’s medicine recovered her, she does not question him or his work until faced with the reality of its risks, and even then battles constantly with herself over the tension between doting, obedient daughter and rebellious young woman in search of identity. What, for most of the novel, is thought to be debilitating weakness becomes, perhaps unsurprisingly, the strength which frees her family from the oppressive forces who wish not only to bend the Moreaus and their work to their will, but to remove Carlotta from the only place she has ever wanted to be. Her struggle with this tension between appearances and reality, health and illness, release and restraint, echoes in its own way my ever complex feelings about my own life. More than that, though, it is but another brilliant thread of the newly enriched trend of horror’s femme main characters going absolutely feral.
While the Gothic may find ways to suppress it, wrapped in barbed words rather than pointed actions, there is no denying the ferocity beating at the heart of many of horror’s newest titles, particularly those written by non-cis, non-white, and/or non-heteronormative authors, and for good reason. Much as with film, literature tends to be a wonderful arena for exploring tensions we may not so easily or safely be otherwise able to express. All the while Moreno-Garcia is able to balance such exploration with a swoon-worthy though tragic-tinged-and-forged romance in a way that seems wholly unique to her.
The mark of the best classic-reimaginings are those that can build upon and enrich the world from which they spring without cheapening or lessening them, and though it is a loose one, Daughter of Doctor Moreau does just that and so much more.
I would like to thank the publisher and NetGalley for the opportunity to receive an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau hits shelves July 19, 2022.