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Book Review: The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Book Review: The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Loosely inspired by the late 19th century science fiction novel The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest book takes place against the backdrop of The Caste War of Yucatán. Swapping the original story’s remote Pacific Ocean island setting for the rural Mexican peninsula, it has all the hallmarks readers have come to expect from the Mexican-Canadian author’s works: unnerving undertones, beautifully detailed descriptions, complex characterisation, and lonesome characters who become unexpected heroes.

Like so many of Moreno-Garcia’s novels, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is a slow-burning story that builds its carefully crafted plot gradually, eking out the tension and suspense. It begins in 1871 when a new mayodomo, the melancholic Montgomery Laughton, arrives at the isolated jungle home of Doctor Moreau and his solitary daughter Carlota. Jumping forward to 1877, Montgomery has embraced the unorthodox life of the Moreaus at the isolated Yaxaktun estate, assisting the doctor with his scientific experiments, whilst drinking away his pain and the lingering memories of a tragic past. Meanwhile, Carlota has grown into a beautiful young woman, something Montgomery tries his best to ignore.

Carlota, Montgomery and Doctor Moreau live a static and self-sufficient existence alongside the hybrids – a motley group of part-human, part-animal creatures created by the Doctor. Cut off from the rest of civilisation, they’re unaffected by the outside world. But everything changes with the arrival of Eduardo Lizalde, the charming, careless son of Doctor Moreau’s patron, who takes an immediate shine to Carlota which threatens not just her peaceful life in Yaxaktun, but the future of her father’s work and the survival of the hybrids – the only family Carlota has ever known.

She recalled what Ramona had said, that Yaxaktun was the end of the world. And she thought that yes, this man was here because he believed that was the case, that he had reached the end of the world and he was simply waiting for the annihilation of all things.”

Alternating between Carlota’s and Montgomery’s perspectives, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is part dream, part nightmare; a story where the natural beauties of the world exist next to the Doctor’s sinister scientific monstrosities. There’s a lush, verdant feel to this novel that’s more in keeping with Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic than the more urban Velvet Was The Night. Yaxaktun is every bit a character as its human counterparts, providing not only vibrant scenery for the unfolding story but a reason for the characters to fight for their home when it’s invaded by those who’d wish to cause it, and its occupants, harm.

Similar to H. G. Wells’ original novel, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau explores the consequences and ethics of the Doctor’s mad experiments but it’s not a straight retelling. The focus here is on Carlota, who’s fiercely loyal to her father yet has a questioning nature too. The more Carlota discovers, the more she starts to wonder what secrets her father is keeping from her. She just wants to protect the only home she’s ever known, but her limited experience of the outside world – particularly men – makes her too trusting when it comes to Eduardo, a charismatic man raised to believe he can take whatever he wants. Montgomery has the opposite problem. He’s sardonic and cynical, burnt by the world and just wanting to forget. He has such a low opinion of himself and Carlota is the only bright light in his life. He’ll do anything to protect her – and by extension the hybrids too.

On the surface this is a story of science and morality, but peel back the many exquisitely detailed layers and what Silvia Moreno-Garcia has really crafted is an atmospheric and evocative historical tale of love, sacrifice, friendship and family – whatever shape or form that might take. Moreno-Garcia has such a gift for taking broken, unremarkable people and turning them into the most unlikely of heroes. Montgomery – like Velvet Was the Night’s Elvis – being one of them. And it’s the characters – damaged, earnest, foolish and brave as they are – that linger when the book ends.


The Daughter of Doctor Moreau was published by Jo Fletcher Books on 19 July 2022

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