Content warning: This novel contains graphic depictions of violence and sexual assault
Once you start reading Mexican author Fernanda Melchor’s debut novel “Hurricane Season,” plan to keep going until you’ve finished it all in one go. With its gargantuan, complex sentences and lack of paragraph breaks, reading it in one sitting is the perfect way to experience how the novel itself mimics a hurricane’s energy.
Translated from the original Spanish by Sophie Hughes, the English version of “Hurricane Season” is frantic, a tremendous accomplishment of translation in how entirely it captures the overlaying current of desperation in Melchor’s inceptive vision.
It’s only natural that this desperation arises with such fervor: In “Hurricane Season,” Melchor grapples with “feminicidio,” or femicide, the systematic killing of women. This is never outrightly disclaimed in the novel, but it’s impossible not to make the connection while reading. One of the novel’s two epigraphs acknowledges the story’s basis in reality, pulled from Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s “The Dead Girls”: “Some of the events described here are real. All of the characters are invented.”
Yet despite this desperation, Melchor’s novel is not a meditation on femicide in Mexico, but rather a presentation of such atrocities that, instead of being overtly concept-driven, focuses intensely on humanizing its characters and exploring every intricacy that makes up their motivations and desires. It is an explosively dense novel; every word is intentional, every detail relevant to the bigger picture. Aside from chapter partitions, Melchor is entirely uninterested in giving readers a second to breathe — this is all part of the book’s bewitching, enthralling capability to ensnare readers, sans the mercy never given to its own characters.
At the novel’s beginning, it seems that the tale being told is that of a woman known only as the Witch, whose murder is the inciting incident of the novel. More accurately, it is the tale of this murder’s significance. The Witch’s mother before her was also known as the Witch, which complicates things by making the two seem interchangeable, not only in the way they’re treated by those around them but also in the way they’re treated narratively: neither one of them gets a name other than “Witch.”
Melchor manages to pull off something that risks coming off as heavy-handed, speaking to the level of character-driven complexity she executes so well in her novel. The mother’s sins are a major theme, one that goes back to the unspoken root of the unspeakable violence that Melchor dares put down on the page: that some women in Mexico are not only forced to suffer barbarity, but are also made to feel and claim responsibility for this inhumanity.
In many ways, “Hurricane Season” is an anti-allegory. Its lyrical prose makes the narration feel fantastical, but the story is entirely grounded in reality such that this prose, in and of itself, is a vehicle through which the novel’s commentary is propelled. Its beauty is representative of the beauty denied to the women whose suffering permeates every page. What’s more, Melchor herself has talked about being inspired by real-life news articles, which became the basis for her novel.
Novelly, the Witch is also a trans woman, and her gender — as well as, specifically and critically, her womanhood — is never questioned any more than what would be expected from a society imbued with toxic masculine ideals. Her status as a woman isn’t questioned by the novel itself; it’s only ever questioned by specific characters. This adds a dimension to Melchor’s novel not always explored when discussing what it means and looks like to be a woman in Mexico.
You’ll notice, and perhaps be disturbed, by the fact that the Witch never gets to take over the narration in the same way as other characters implicated in her murder, or tangential to her murder, get to; this is true on a surface level, but the Witch is aggressively present in everything that is and isn’t said. Although no one in this book is a caricature — far from it, which is part of what makes it such a moving narrative — the pain felt by other women who get to prominently control the narrative, such as the pregnant 13-year-old Norma, amplifies the Witch’s mute despair in ways that can’t be put into words. It’s what goes unsaid that says the most of all.
“Hurricane Season” can be purchased on bookshop.org, a website that shares proceeds with small, independent bookstores. Alternatively, you can use bookstorelink.com to search for independent bookstores near you. Many bookstores in the Bay Area are currently offering delivery services and curbside pickup.