Season of the Witch

Hurricane Season By Fernanda Melchor, translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes. New York: New Directions. 224 pages. $23.

The cover of Hurricane Season

While working as a journalist in Veracruz, Fernanda Melchor came across a report of a body found in a ditch outside a small village. A detail stood out: The victim was a known witch, and the suspect, a former lover, took his revenge when he realized the Witch had cast a spell for him to return. Melchor became fascinated with the story. At first she imagined writing a Capote-esque work of nonfiction about the crime informed by interviews with the suspect and the village’s residents, an In Cold Blood set in Mexico. But in Veracruz, a journalist asking too many questions draws the wrong kind of attention. Melchor settled, instead, on a work of fiction. “In Mexico,” Melchor said in an interview with press from El Salvador, “they kill journalists, but they don’t kill writers, and anyways, fiction protects you.”

The resulting novel, Temporada de huracanes, was published in 2017 and established Melchor as one of Mexico’s most promising and prominent writers. While it is her third book—preceded by Aquí no es Miami, a collection of crónicas set in Veracruz, and Falsa liebre, her debut novel—it is her first to be translated into English. Melchor’s Hurricane Season follows a well-trodden path of fiction about Mexico; she writes of violence, misogyny, rape, impunity, corruption, substance abuse, poverty, desperation, depravity. She is invested in the “aesthetics of the nota roja,” a form of sensationalist tabloid press often criticized for its gruesome indulgence in violent death. While the novel does share a certain kinship with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, it doesn’t reenact that book’s exhausting exhumation. What rescues Hurricane Season from triteness is Melchor’s virtuosic prose, somewhat effaced but not entirely blunted in translation. She writes of lives with specificity, with a crude recognition of their humanity that allows, if not for redemption or hope for those lives, at least some measure of peace for their dead.

The death in question here belongs to the Witch, whose murder sets the plot in motion. She remains silent and nameless, only seen out in La Matosa, the fictional village in which the novel is set, wearing a black tunic and a veil. In Hurricane Season’s first pages, a pack of young boys, led like vultures to her corpse, find her bloated head wide-eyed and smiling. Feared, loathed, desired, the Witch is La Matosa’s only source of magnetic exception. Her dilapidated house is the town’s emotional dumping ground; she is at once priest, therapist, and pharmacist. Although the Witch lives in filth, she is said to hoard immense wealth in the one locked room of her home. Her basement is a drug den and karaoke stage where she is rumored to take off her veil and sing. What brings the town’s abandoned and downtrodden to the Witch’s door, and what ends up killing her, is envy. There is no magic in La Matosa. There is only a superstitious envy that seeps into every relationship. Mothers envy daughters, lovers envy their lovers’ friends, the broke envy the lucky. People are sickened by envy and kill others because of it.

We hear the story of the Witch’s murder through a polyphonic chorus of La Matosa’s denizens: sex workers, addicts, gay teens, the disabled. Each chapter adds another voice to the whispers about the crime. There is no objective detective sifting through the evidence. Instead the novel is like a tape recorder left turned on in a public confessional.

At first the crime appears to be a case of femicide, thickened by connected forms of gendered violence: the constant threat of rape, the casual misogyny. Yet halfway through the novel we learn it is also a vicious act of homophobia. The Witch is trans, a fact that is slowly revealed over the course of the book. She serves as tenuous ringleader of an illicit group of gay lovers, who are ultimately implicated in her death.

Melchor’s sentences ensnare the reader within the characters’ delusions, their small, persistent faiths, their regrets, their resentments. Her prose is as ornate as Sebald’s, turning in on itself, forming fractal spirals of meaning. But while Sebald’s sentences have a stately, lecture-hall air to them, Melchor’s sound more like a drunk’s slurred tale. It’s the breathless monologue of good gossip or the bitter outpouring of religious profession, with no paragraph break, no gasp for air. What makes the writing mesmerizing is the almost imperceptible way that Melchor is able to inflect each character’s voice within the novel’s sustained tone of a close, omniscient third-person narration. The effect, subtle yet transfixing, is of a narrator slipping into each character as if slipping into a new skin, without collapsing into any stable “I.”

When Melchor introduces us to the Witch, it is through the voices of the women who visited her and who lament that “it turns out she was right to hide away like she did, given what those assholes ended up doing to her; poor Witch, poor crank, let’s just hope they catch the fucker or fuckers who slit her throat.” A few chapters later, we slip into the body of Munra, one of the men implicated in the crime: “Honest, honest, honest to God, he didn’t see a thing, on his mother’s soul, may she rest in peace, he didn’t see a thing; didn’t even know what those fuckers had done to her . . .” This is not one voice speaking as many, nor many voices speaking as one. Rather, each voice speaks as the author, as Melchor, who also speaks as them. In the lives—and deaths—she writes, Melchor doesn’t “give a voice” to anyone. She carefully sets the altar, places an ofrenda, lights a candle, and listens.

Ana Cecilia Alvarez is a writer from Mexico City living in Los Angeles.