Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Title: American Dirt
Author: Jeanine Cummins
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: January 21, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Received as a gift

Rating: 3 out of 5.

También de este lado hay sueños. On this side, too, there are dreams.

Lydia Quixano Pérez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.

Even though she knows they’ll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with a few books he would like to buy—two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia’s husband’s tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same.

Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier’s reach doesn’t extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?

It’s impossible to read American Dirt without awareness of the controversy surrounding this book seeping into the reading experience. Which is okay — it’s controversial for a reason, and I actually had no intention of reading this book, until a family member gave it to me as a gift. So, with hesitation, I jumped in.

American Dirt is a story of pain and violence. Lydia’s life is permanently ravaged when a cartel murder squad invades her family’s backyard celebration. Purely by chance, Lydia and her eight-year-old son Luca survive, while sixteen other members of her family, including her husband, are killed. Recognizing their immediate danger, Lydia flees with Luca, knowing that the cartel won’t stop hunting them and that their only chance at safety is to head north to the US and try to cross the border.

As the book progresses, we learn more about the escalating violence in Acapulco as well as across all of Mexico, as the cartels exert more and more power. Lydia’s husband is a reporter who specializes in profiling cartel violence. Lydia herself runs a bookstore, where she ends up befriending a seemingly kind, intellectual man… who turns out to be none other than the head of the cartel ruling Acapulco. When Sebastian’s expose of Javier runs, it sets off a course of tragedy and violence that leads directly to the massacre of their family.

Lydia and Luca’s journey is harrowing, as they join the crowds of migrants riding La Bestia, the network of freight trains that run through Mexico, which migrants risk life and limb to ride atop in the hopes of making it north. Along the way, they face physical danger from the train itself as well as severe threats from police and cartel soldiers who round up migrants and inflict torture, death, and demands for ransom as part of their standard operating procedures.

Is this a good book? Not really, no. It’s dramatic for sure, and a compelling read, but it’s hard for me to actually praise it. Despite problems (more on those in a second), it’s a fast read that’s hard to put down once started. Yet the book really is more melodrama than anything else, indulging in nonstop violence and horrific situations, and presenting a portrait of Mexico as a place with not one ounce of safety or happiness.

The friendship (almost romantic) with Javier is unnecessary and feel soap opera-worthy. What are the odds that the wife of the journalist who exposes him would also be this man’s good friend and close confidante?. Why does Lydia, a woman grieving her slaughtered family, need to be also burdened by what-ifs about putting trust in Javier’s friendship?

Teen sisters Soledad and Rebeca become traveling companions for Lydia and Luca. We’re hit over the hit repeatedly with how remarkably beautiful the girls are — and, the book makes clear, how their beauty singles them out to become targets of rapists, again and again and again throughout the book. Why is their beauty relevant? Don’t women not at this pinnacle of beauty also get raped? Not in American Dirt.

The coyote who takes Lydia, Luca, and a group of others across the border is, of course, one of the good ones. He’s a coyote with a soul. Despite his tough talk and enforcement of rules, one tragedy one this journey in particular is enough to transform him and change him permanently. Really? As if he’s never lost anyone on a crossing before?

These are just a few examples, but I found the whole story to be over the top and voyeuristic. I could go on (why does it matter that Luca is a geography protege?), but I’ll turn instead to my other annoyances with this book, namely the writing.

First, the point of view shifts from paragraph to paragraph between Luca and Lydia, with no sense of why, and it’s confusing and distracting. Lydia will be thinking about something, and it’s not until midway through the following paragraph that a reference to Mami alerts us that we’re now seeing Luca’s perspective. Other character’s points-of-view are randomly included, seemingly so that the author can offer us first-person narratives of terrible experiences that Lydia wasn’t present for.

Also, the writing itself and the author’s descriptions are often over the top or simply incomprehensible. A few examples, but I could really open up the book practically at random and find more:

She loved that boy with her whole heart, but my God, there were days when she couldn’t fully breathe until she’d left him at the schoolyard gate. That’s all over now; she would staple him to her, sew him into her skin, affix her body permanently to his now, if she could. She’d grow her hair into his scalp, would become his conjoined twin-mother.

Her face is splotchy but dry, and there are dark circles beneath her eyes. Her expression is one Luca has never seen before, and he fears it might be permanent. It’s as if seven fisherman have cast their hooks into her from different directions and they’re all pulling at once. One from the eyebrow, one from the lip, another at the nose, one from the cheek. Mami is contorted.

In the half-light left over from Soledad’s corona, Rebeca glimmers like a secret sun.

Your mileage may vary, but repeatedly throughout the book, I had to pause to try to turn the author’s imagery into a picture in my mind that actually made sense. It didn’t always work.

I’m not directly addressing the controversy about the author, I realize, and that’s simply because it’s been covered elsewhere in depth. For more, I recommend:
The Seattle Review of Books: “The Dirt on American Dirt”
Tropics of Meta: Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck
Vulture: “Why Is Everyone Arguing About the Novel American Dirt?”
New York Times: “American Dirt is Proof the Publishing Industry is Broken”

I with the author had explained more about her sources or the research that went into writing this book. The migrant experience is a compelling and important topic, but I don’t feel that American Dirt is the right book for really learning about it.

It does, however, make me want to seek out more authentic accounts by #ownvoices authors. I know there’s a lot to learn — I just don’t think American Dirt is the book to learn from.

Book Review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: Mexican Gothic
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: June 30, 2020
Print length: 352 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

An isolated mansion. A chillingly charismatic artistocrat. And a brave socialite drawn to expose their treacherous secrets. . . .

From the author of Gods of Jade and Shadow comes “a terrifying twist on classic gothic horror” (Kirkus Reviews) set in glamorous 1950s Mexico—“fans of classic novels like Jane Eyre and Rebecca are in for a suspenseful treat” (PopSugar).

After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

This creepy, disturbing gothic novel lives up to all the rave reviews!

Mexican Gothic takes place in 1950s Mexico. We first meet Noemi Taboada coming home from a fancy party. She’s the pampered, pretty daughter of a wealthy family, at odds with her parents who want her to marry well (and soon), while what she really wants is to enroll in university to pursue a masters degree.

As the story starts, Noemi’s father shares with her a disturbing letter from her beloved older cousin Catalina. Catalina recently married a man she’d only known briefly and moved with him to his family’s isolated mountain estate. In her letter, Catalina seems to be rambling and incoherent, talking about hearing things in the walls and begging for help. Catalina’s husband explains her ravings away as a side effect of tuberculosis, and insists that she’s getting good medical care. But Mr. Taboada is worried enough that he decides to send Noemi as his ambassador to check up on Catalina’s well-being and nurse her back to health — or bring her back to Mexico City, if needed.

Noemi’s arrival at the Doyle estate is shocking. High up an isolated, treacherous mountain road, the mansion, High Place, is shambling and neglected, shrouded in mist and in a state of disrepair. Noemi is greeted by Florence, cousin to Catalina’s husband Virgil, a domineering, strict woman who asserts herself in charge not only of the house’s routines, but of Catalina’s care as well.

The house is dismal, and so are its occupants. There’s a no-talking rule at dinner, Noemi is forbidden from smoking, there’s no electricity and cool baths are encouraged, and the place is altogether repressive and awful. The only bright spot is Florence’s son Francis, a young man about Noemi’s age, who appears to be sympathetic and supportive, eager to help Noemi and keep her company.

Noemi’s visits with Catalina are severely restricted, and Catalina seems to be kept drugged most of the time. The doctor who sees her once a week doesn’t think anything is wrong, and the family is dismissive of Noemi’s prodding to call in a psychiatric specialist or to get another opinion.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because man, is it good! The atmosphere is grim and creepy in all the best ways. Strange insular family? Check. Decrepit old house? Check. Windows that don’t open and mold on the walls? Check and check.

Like in any good gothic novel, the setting is mysterious and threatening, and our brave heroine has no easy means of escape as she’s drawn further and further into the sick and twisted family secrets that have entrapped her cousin and now seem to be pulling her in as well.

And those secrets? Well, gross and disturbing and menacing don’t even quite encompass what’s going on in that terrible house. I love the growing sense of terror, the sickness at the heart of the family history, the interplay between these wealthy English landowners and the people of the surrounding areas, and the desperation that drives Noemi as she comes closer and closer to finally seeing the truth.

The moodiness of the book put me in mind of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and even Angels & Insects by A. S. Byatt. If you’re a fan of creaky old houses with terrible secrets, this book should be right up your alley. It’s not blood and guts horror exactly — more of the quietly creeping chill that turns into growing terror as more and more awful things happen.

Mexican Gothic is so well written, so dramatic and well-plotted. I loved it, even thought it completely creeped me out and kept me turning the pages in a non-stop anxious frenzy. I can’t wait to read more by this author!