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Book Review: Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Book Review: Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia has traversed many genres across the numerous acclaimed novels she’s written, and she does it with such enviable ease. From folkloric fantasy and gothic horror, to magical romance and science fiction, to paranormal neo-noir and classical noir mystery, each one of her books feels different from the last. The author’s novels are also notable for the eras they span, whether it’s the late 19th century, the roaring twenties, the post-war fifties or the seventies, which is the evocative historical setting for Untamed Shore.

Set in Baja California, 1979, Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel is a coming-of-age tale that mixes intoxicating infatuation with a web of deceit and crime. It centres around eighteen-year-old Viridiana, a bright yet unworldly and dissatisfied young woman who’s spent her entire life in her Mexican hometown, where the harsh sun parches the land and the fishermen pile dead sharks on the seashore. Viridiana feels suffocated by small town life. She doesn’t want to shackle herself with a dreary marriage and children. She dreams of romance, travel and excitement, and when three wealthy Americans arrive for the summer, Viridiana can’t help but be drawn into their seemingly glamorous and blithe world.

The three Americans are unlike the usual tourists who visit Baja California. There’s Ambrose, an affluent writer who hires Viridiana as his assistant, though he rarely does any actual writing. Then there’s Ambrose’s much younger wife Daisy, a blatant gold-digger who veers between charming and prickly depending on the day of the week. Finally, there’s Daisy’s brother Gregory, a charismatic “matinee idol” of a man, who knows exactly how to charm a lonely, naive woman like Viridiana. It’s not long before she’s entangled in their lives but when one of them dies, Viridiana is torn between her mounting misgivings and the loyalty she feels for her new friends. And when someone comes to town asking questions, Viridiana finds herself questioning how well she really knows the people she’s protecting.

She’d always been so afraid that the land would eat her, but it was obvious now that the answer was you had to eat it. You have to be the carnivore, the devourer, the one who bites first.”

Untamed Shore might be set in the 1970’s but there’s a distinct feel of 1920’s decadence to the wealthy Americans who turn Viridiana’s humdrum life upside-down. With her privileged attitude and trophy wife status, Daisy has an air of Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby, whilst Gregory exudes a Jay Gatsby-esque self-confidence and allure. Like Gatsby, he’s also hiding something, a shadowy past and a darker side of him, but he’s not the only one. Daisy and Gregory’s louche, self-indulgent attitudes might feel as if they hark from another era, but this is very much a story rooted in late 70’s Mexico, with a much more rustic and unforgiving setting. This contrast between the Americans’ wealth and Viridiana’s more humble existence is stark; you can see why she’s so enamoured with them, even when they treat her like the help rather than an equal.

This is a novel populated by morally grey characters, each of them just trying to get by in the only way they know how. Even Viridiana, who spends the whole book being manipulated by the Americans in one way or another, has her own motive. She wants to get out of Baja California and she sees Gregory, Daisy and Ambrose as a way of making that happen. Her position and youth is constantly exploited, but Viridiana is incredibly smart. She watches, listens and learns. She might not be as worldly as her new acquaintances, but that doesn’t mean she can’t play them at their own game. After all, she’s a girl of the desert, and the desert has given her a tough skin. Tough enough to withstand the sun; tough enough to withstand duplicity.

Not for the first time, the thing that impresses me most about Moreno-Garcia’s writing is how vivid and palpable her descriptions are. She creates a tense and bleak sun-baked, sea-swept atmosphere, full of disquieting suspense and old-fashioned, black and white movie crime. If you’re a fan of the author’s novels, this one most closely resembles Velvet was the Night. Though the settings and plots are wildly different, there’s a familiarity in the lonely central character, a dreaminess and yearning that was shared by Maite and Elvis. These characters aren’t poetically written and they’re certainly not perfect. They’re all flawed, but it’s the flaws that make them so memorable.

There’s a gritty psychological element to Untamed Shore, a complex tangle of mind games, ulterior motives, misogyny and coming-of-age realisations. It’s a masterfully crafted and authentic character driven tale that’s more about mindset than fast-paced plot (which might frustrate readers with a low tolerance for a slow burn story). But that’s part of the beauty of this book. You’re able to live every single moment with Viridiana, whether it’s monumental – as in the impressively clever denouement – or seemingly insignificant. Silvia Moreno-Garcia really makes you care about the character at the novel’s heart, and sometimes that’s more rewarding than action and thrills.


Untamed Shore is published by Jo Fletcher Books on 16 February 2023

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