Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor review – intense and inventive

A murder mystery set in horror and squalor, this English-language debut signals the rise of a Mexican star

A structurally inventive murder mystery set in a lawless Mexican village rife with superstition, Fernanda Melchor’s formidable English-language debut takes the form of eight torrential paragraphs ranging from one to 64 pages long.

It opens in a blizzard of gossip related to the discovery of the corpse of a notorious local woman known as the Witch, who provided abortions for sex workers serving the nearby oil industry and whose rundown mansion – a venue for raucous parties – was said to hold a stash of gold eyed up by everyone from down-at-heel gigolos to venal cops on the take.

In vigorous, earthy language (Sophie Hughes’s resourceful translation raids US and British slang for what you guess must be a pretty creative repertoire of curses and epithets), we’re plunged into the chaotic lives of several villagers in the Witch’s orbit, including druggy layabout Luismi, seen leaving her home the morning her body was found; his pal Brando, tormented by secret lust; and his lover, Norma, a 13-year-old runaway carrying her stepfather’s baby.

What follows is a brutal portrait of small-town claustrophobia, in which machismo is a prison and corruption isn’t just institutional but domestic, with families broken by incest and violence. Melchor’s long, snaking sentences make the book almost literally unputdownable, shifting our grasp of key events by continually creeping up on them from new angles. The object isn’t clarity, but complication: the Witch, it turns out, might actually be a man and there are three of them.

The near-dystopian onslaught of horror and squalor leaves you dumbstruck, as Melchor shows us the desperation of girls cruelly denied their ambitions, railroaded into household service or worse, and the depravity of boys for whom desire comes fatally muddled with power and humiliation. It’s telling that the only characters with any real measure of control – a police chief and a narco boss, morally indistinguishable – are the only ones from whose perspective Melchor never writes.

While there’s no shortage of ugly moments, including the hinted-at contents of a viral video showing the fate of an abducted child, it’s often the smallest details that testify to how thoroughly Melchor has inhabited her often appalling material: at one point, Norma, unsure why she’s feeling sick in the morning, finds herself even less able than usual to tolerate the smell of her regular bedmate, a younger brother who can’t wipe his own bottom properly.

Melchor has said that she originally conceived of Hurricane Season as a nonfiction investigation, à la Truman Capote, of a real‑life murder that took place in a village near her hometown of Veracruz, changing tack once she reconsidered the hazards of poking around a narco-inhabited locale as a stranger. If she has any ethical doubts about the project, she keeps them to herself; this is fiction with the brakes off. Not an Oprah book club pick, one suspects, but not a novel to be missed – if you can steel yourself.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99). To order a copy go to or call 020-3176 3837


Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

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