‘Hurricane Season’ by Fernanda Melchor (Review – IBP 2020, Number Nine)

After the last week on the blog was spent looking at a writer who may well pop up on next year’s International Booker Prize longlist, it’s time to get back to this year’s selection, with five more stops to make on our literary travels before the end of the journey.  As you may recall, our previous stop took us to a small village in Iran, and today’s trip sees us heading off to the countryside again, this time in Mexico.  However, anyone expecting some bucolic tranquillity has another think coming.  Today’s destination doesn’t have much going for it, and when people are stuck in the middle of nowhere with little money, and even less to do, you can be sure that there’s tragedy just around the corner…

*****
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor
– Fitzcarraldo Editions, translated by Sophie Hughes
(I read a review copy of the Australian edition, courtesy of Text Publishing)

What’s it all about?
Hurricane Season is a book that starts with a bang, in the form of five boys playing by the river, and a gruesome discovery they make:

But the ringleader pointed to the edge of the cattle track, and all five of them, crawling along the dry grass, all five of them packed together in a single body, all five of them surrounded by blowflies, finally recognised what was peeping out from the yellow foam on the water’s surface: the rotten face of a corpse floating among the rushes and the plastic bags swept in from the road on the breeze, the dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes, smiling.
p.2 (Text Publishing, 2020)

The identity of this corpse is no mystery, with the boys immediately identifying it as that of the Witch, an outsider living in a big, run-down house just outside town.  What the next couple of hundred pages will explore are the circumstances surrounding the murder, and (of course) the reasons for it.

We’ll have to wait a while for all that, though, as truth emerges in rather fragmented fashion in the Mexican provinces.  Once the initial set-up is done, we’re provided with accounts by four of the townsfolk, each one bringing us closer to the fateful hour of the witch’s death.  Gradually, however, we realise that while the story seems to be one of an horrific murder, in truth, it’s a broader, far more sinister tale.  This is a backwater forgotten and abandoned by mainstream society, and there are far more stories out there waiting to be told.

Hurricane Season is an impressive, mesmerising work, a novel using a murder as the focal point around which the writer constructs a damning indictment of a society with no hope.  Just as important as what occurs is its setting, a dead-end town where there are few opportunities for work, education or self-betterment.  One quick way out for the town’s women is an early pregnancy, but anyone thinking it’s an easy option is soon disillusioned:

…this children business is bullshit, bull-fucking-shit; there’s no way of dressing it up: in the end, all kids are a burden, spongers, parasites who suck the life and all your blood from you.  And to top it off they don’t appreciate any of the sacrifices you’ve got no choice but to make for them. (p.152)

Then again, when most other options lead to drugs, violence and far worse, it’s little surprise that having kids seem like a lesser evil.  Melchor shows the reader a town where more people go to brothels than school, where drugs are more common than fruit and where the police are bigger crooks than the petty criminals they’re supposed to catch.

In terms of the main story, after a brief introduction (showing us the Witch’s Miss-Haversham-style existence in the ramshackle house – with young men visiting for riotous drug-fuelled orgies…), we are given the first hints of the murderer’s identity in Yesenia’s tale, where the young woman mainly complains about her deadbeat cousin Luismi.  Munra, an old cripple living with Luismi’s mother, takes over the story; then it’s the turn of Luismi’s young ‘wife’ Norma to say what she knows, before his friend, Brando, rounds off the story with his account of events.

Luismi is at the core of the novel, yet he’s often seen and rarely heard.  Without a real job and constantly out of his mind on drugs, he’s a frequent visitor to the Witch’s residence, so it’s no surprise that he’s a prime suspect in the murder case.  Most readers will be quick to judge, yet the various accounts we’re treated to show a different side to him.  There is a reason, of course, for what happens, but it’s very different to what we expect.

The four accounts making up the bulk of the novel are looping affairs that start at the end and backtrack to fill in the details.  Cleverly, they build upon each other, altering our view, with characters becoming narrators, and vice-versa.  As a result, our opinions of the people described change, with a manipulative vamp, for example, later shown as a young girl fleeing sexual predators.  Melchor seems to be stressing a need to listen to the whole story since our assumptions are often later proven false (the Witch is certainly a very different person to who we initially think…).

In addition to the compelling content, Hurricane Season convinces with its writing, a text consisting of long sentences, full of short clauses and phrases.  The effect is terse and tense, ripping the reader along, with Hughes doing an excellent job of bringing this breathless style into English.  One comment I would make here, though, is that there are occasions where a mix of American and British word choices can be distracting.  This might be due to editorial choices (the book is published by New Directions in the US, Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and Text Publishing here in Australia), but whatever the reason, it can occasionally jar.
(UPDATE – 22/4/20: Thanks to a comment you can see below from Matt Todd, I’ve been pointed in the direction of a Granta interview between the writer and the translator, in which Hughes explains her decision to use both British and American words.  I’m not completely convinced, but please read and judge for yourselves!).

I suspect, though, that most readers will be less upset by the inclusion of ‘ass’ and ‘crisps’ in the same text than by some of the confronting scenes they’ll encounter.  Hurricane Season should come with trigger warnings aplenty, for sex, drugs, violence and far more besides.  It’s extremely direct, crude and full of foul language, so if you’re easily upset or offended, this may not be for you.  Of all the incidents described in the book, it’s perhaps Norma’s story that’s the most disturbing.  Here, Melchor describes a horrifying tale of abuse, one that shows that predators can be found anywhere, not just in run-down country towns.

By the end of our stay, we’ll know some of the truth, but by no means the whole story.  Hurricane Season‘s circular nature echoes the repetitive lives in which the inhabitants of the small town are trapped.  Yes, the novel is built around one tragic incident, but the truth is that it’s just one of many.  You certainly get the impression that this will all continue long after we’ve hit the road…

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Absolutely.  Hurricane Season is an enthralling read, with a compelling style and a well-crafted story, and even if it doesn’t always make for pleasant reading, there’s no denying its quality.  When I eventually finish my reading and reviewing of the longlist and decide on my top picks, Melchor’s novel will probably be up on the podium – and with no one book really standing out for me this year, the colour of the medal may well just depend on how I feel on the day…

Why did it make the shortlist?
Good writing, timely subject matter and an interesting story.  Nothing particularly original about that, but these features are always a bonus, and having a Mexican writer on the judging panel won’t harm Melchor’s chances either.  If I were a betting man (which I’m definitely not…), my money would be on Hurricane Season winning the whole thing – but you’ll have to wait a while to see if I’m right, given that the announcement has just been postponed

*****
Having managed to escape the village with our lives (if not our dignity) intact, it’s time for a change of pace.  Next up, we’re heading for Norway to drink in the tranquiity of the fjords in the company of an old painter – or should that be two painters?  You see, we have a case here of split identity, and it’s going to take a while to work out exactly who’s who.  See you in Scandinavia 😉

7 thoughts on “‘Hurricane Season’ by Fernanda Melchor (Review – IBP 2020, Number Nine)

    1. Kaggsy – This is one book where a trigger warning would be appropriate, but at least most reviews make that abundantly clear…

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    1. Matt – Thanks for that! Not sure it’s entirely successful, but at least I can see now the intent behind the decision.

      Like

  1. I didn’t particularly notice the American-British probably because, unfortunately, Americanisms creep into language here all the time anyway.

    On this though “And it was especially difficult in the British translation because, for whatever reason, we don’t tend to involve our mothers as much as our American friends do” – she may not have been to any playground recently as pretty much the worst retort one can make to another is simply to say “your Mum” (immediate fight almost guaranteed). Though it would only work for the young characters.

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    1. Paul – I think she was referring more to the actual swear words used, with more of those using a variation on mother insults in US English… As for the mix, it stood out a mile for me, it’s something I’m extremely sensitive to, probably because my job frequently involves deciding on how natural something sounds (actually, usually how unnatural!).

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      1. Agreed I just meant “your Mum” has become the ultimate English English insult (although less a swear word – that is more implicit). Sort of verbal equivalent of the bras d’honneur

        Liked by 1 person

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