Reviewed by Terri-Jane Dow
“The Witch is dead,” proclaims the blurb of Fernanda Melchor’s incredible (and incredibly violent) Hurricane Season. Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and longlisted for the International Booker Prize, Hurricane Season is Melchor’s first novel to be translated into English. Hurricane Season is the story of a murder, but more than that, it’s an account of the toxic, misogynistic horror that runs through a rural Mexican village.
Set in the small, superstitious Mexican village of La Matosa, Hurricane Season opens on a group of children playing in the canals, where they find the bloated, partially decomposed body of the Witch. What follows is a journey through the life of the Witch, a title bedded into the folklore of the village, back through characters and voices which link and overlap. The villagers, and the village itself, are a snapshot of how poverty and prejudices feed on each other.
Living in a huge, dilapidated mansion at the edge of the village, half nestled in the forest, the Witch has provided abortions to sex workers for years. Her house has been the site of drug-fuelled parties and teenage games of Knock Down Ginger, but despite her visibility, the Witch has secrets, not least of which the fact that she might not be who she seems at all. Rumours swirl around her; that she killed a husband, that she’s more than one person, that she’s not really a woman, that she’s not really a person at all. These rumours, mixed with various myths and superstitions,
The characters most closely followed are Norma, Luismi (potentially the last person to see the Witch alive), and his friend Brando. Norma’s story is the most arresting; thirteen years old, she’s carrying her stepfather’s child. Melchor unrelentingly describes her in terms that are too adult for their subject matter, too brutal.
Between the characters themselves and the atmosphere rendered by Melchor’s writing (and Hughes’ translation), it’s impossible to maintain any semblance of distance. Right from the very start, the writing is so stunning (in the very literal sense of the word) that I took a picture of the first page and WhatsApped it to a couple of friends with a line of fire emojis. It doesn’t falter, and at no point does Hurricane Season become an easy read. There are page-long sentences and each chapter is written as one sprawling paragraph, some of them so vividly violent that I had to re-read them after getting caught up. In a fantastic interview for Granta [https://granta.com/in-conversation-hughes-melchor/], Sophie Hughes spoke about how difficult she found it to translate all of the swearing and still maintain the level of misogyny within the language. Every section of the novel is full of visceral, guttural descriptions; and I found myself completely pulled into the squalid world of Melchor’s characters as they raged against one another.
I’d recommend it absolutely, but in the knowledge that it’s not going to be for everyone. This is real breathless bleakness. The Witch is dead, long live the Witch.
Hurricane Season is published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Terri-Jane Dow is the editor of Severine, and a writer based in London. You can find her on instagram @terri_jane.