Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor
I search like a madwoman for book recommendations that I would not otherwise come across. It’s why I subscribe to four book services where well-read people who are not like me, share nothing of my background, aren’t accounting for my tastes, and don’t have me locked into an algorithm, send me books. I read books and authors I’ve never heard of and would be unlikely to come across. I also read lithub.com every morning (instead of the Scriptures). That is where I came across a recommendation for Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, a 39-year-old Mexican writer, translated by Sophie Hughes. It was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.
I read this book in one sitting, laughing out loud numerous times—not because it was funny (it’s hardly funny), but because of the audacity of this writer. She made all her own rules. Had I known the particulars of this book in advance, and had I not been COVID-trapped in a lake cabin with few other options, I might have chosen something else from the shelf. Thankfully it was this book or no book. So I read it, I loved it, and I saluted the nerve of this writer. She left absolutely nothing on the table. She risked it all.
The situation in Hurricane Season is that a woman has been found dead in a ditch. What follows is eight chapters, each a single paragraph long, each paragraph ranging from two pages to sixty pages. The book doesn’t have much of a plot except to illuminate the various thoughts these hard luck cases have about who killed the village witch. All of these people live trapped in a life of poverty and violence and mental illness where there is absolutely no escape, no possibility of it, none. This is their world where they will live and where they will die.
I know. I understand why you might think so many books, so little time.
But the structure of this book perfectly suits its subject. Each chapter is close third person from the point of view of one of the people who had some relationship to the dead woman/the dead witch/the dead transvestite/the dead man/the dead wealthy girlfriend/the ?.
Melchor uses each chapter to put you inside the mind and right behind the eyes of each trapped, drug-addled, mentally-ill person and you experience what it’s like to have that propulsive sense-making of the world roar through your head without ceasing. You experience the thoughts and plans and reasoning of people desperate in every way—they lack everything—as they use what little they have to survive. This is the great daring of Melchor—she spares no vulgarity, no craziness, no false hope, no danger in depicting the lives of these people who live on the edge—and that precarious edge is the full extent of their very limited means. And she does not judge them. She just narrates from inside their heads. The experience of reading it is dreadful in its unflinching gaze. She doesn’t mediate it.
As you live with the voices in the heads of these characters, you experience the jarring disorientation of what the world looks like from in there, and how quickly it can change, how few guardrails there are regarding reality. The voices in their heads might switch from first person confession to second person blame to third person narration to a transcript from a doomed police procedural without so much as a pause. The voices see hope where there is none, they see solutions that are built of illusion, they have grandiose, unearned plans, and expect to survive.
What Melchor accomplishes in this unsparing story—and in its unsparing structure—is astonishing and brave. I felt battered by the time I got finished and I felt exhilarated to have been brought through these characters’ lives with the same lack of mercy that her characters encounter. She writes with undaunted resolve to make the reader know. It’s a furious reading experience very hard to explain.
I made no check marks next to good writing, as I normally do when I read. I copied nothing from the book into my journal. It’s not that kind of story.
To give you some sense of it, I’ve randomly selected a few passages that illustrate the ferocity of her writing.
Here’s a passage where Norma is in the hospital after a failed abortion induced by the Witch. She’s remembering how she learned about sex from her step-father. The act is bad enough, but Norma’s objective description of it is where the horror lies. But Melchor does not judge. She just describes:
Because before Pepe there’d been nothing there at all, nothing but folds of skin from which a stream of pee would flow when she sat on the toilet, and that other hole where her poo came out, of course, so who knows by what trick Pepe made another hole appear, a hole that, with time and Pepe’s rough fingers and the tip of his tongue, grew and grew until it could take in her stepfather’s entire cock, right down to the base, he’d say, till it hit the back, like it should, like Norma deserved, like she’d been pleading for it in silence all those years, right?
While at the hospital, Norma examines her body:
…a red, scalped pubis which didn’t remotely resemble her own, and she couldn’t believe that all that flesh down there belonged to her, all that yellowish, pimply flesh that resembled the skin of the dead, gutted chickens in the market … it wasn’t a lack of will that stopped her from flying out of the room at the first opportunity, even if she was butt naked, and even if the breeze wafting in through the door made her shiver and set her teeth chattering, a breeze that was warm, sticky even, but to Norma—who was running a fever—it seemed as glacial as the wind that came down at night from the mountains surrounding Ciudad del Valle, the bluish rock mass covered in pines and chestnut trees, which, one February 14, a few years earlier, Pepe had taken them to see… .
And the woman in the bed next to Norma has this to say:
…my year of prayers really paid off, a full year, not a day missed, not even when I couldn’t get out of bed, when I thought I was dying of sadness, even then I said my prayers to dear St Jude and asked him for my boy to live, for my womb to hold him, protect him, for it not to happen again like with the others, when I’d been so careful and taken all my vitamins, only for the babies to fall out of me, that blood I’d find on my clothes in the toilet, and I’d just break down and cry; I even dreamed of blood, dreamed I was drowning in it, after years of rushing to the bathroom only to realise I’d lost another one: eight times in a row, my friend, eight times in the last three years, God’s honest truth.
These are all from one chapter. Bang, bang, bang. Melchor does not let up.
From another chapter, a character called Brando encounters a young boy
The boy’s lips were pink, that’s what stood out more than anything… [Brando had] never come across another person with lips that color… He was sure that the boy’s nipples, concealed under the fabric of his t-shirt, must be the same rosy tone, and probably tasted of strawberry; they’d probably bleed strawberry syrup instead of blood if someone dared bite them.
Brando is the same person who, in the next breath, has delirious fantasies about possibilities elsewhere, which he imagines are reasonable:
Thirty thousand should do it, he calculated, thirty grand should be enough to get to Cancun and rent a room and start looking for a job, any job: as a waiter, a busboy, as a dishwasher if he had to, whatever it took at first, just to find his feet, and then he could learn a bit of English and look for work in the hotels – where there’d be no shortage of gringo fags looking for a poke – but never staying in the same place, always keeping on the move, drinking and fucking and getting shit-faced by that turquoise, almost green sea.
And finally this long screed about the Witch:
She’d always been you, retard, or you, asshole, or you, devil child, if ever the Witch wanted her to come, or to be quiet, or even just to sit still under the table so that she could listen to the women’s maudlin pleas, their sniveling tales of woe, their strife, the aches and pains, their dreams of dead relatives and the spats between those still alive, and money, it was always the money, but also their husbands and those whores from the highway, and why’d they always walk out on me just when I’ve got my hopes up, they’d sob, what was the point of it all, they’d moan, they might as well be dead, just call it a day, wished they’d never been born, and with the corner of their shawls they’d dry the tears from their faces, which they covered in any case the moment they left the Witch’s kitchen, because they weren’t about to give those bigmouths in town the satisfaction of going around saying how they’d been to see the Witch to plot their revenge against so-and-so, how they’d put a curse on the slut leading their husband astray, because there was always one, always some miserable bitch in town spinning yarns about the girls who, quite innocently, minding their own business, went to the Witch’s for a remedy for indigestion, for that dipshit at home clogged up to his nuts on the extra-large bag of chips he ate in one sitting, or a tea to keep tiredness at bay, or an ointment for tummy troubles, or, let’s be honest, just to sit there a while and lighten the load, let it all out, the pain and sadness that fluttered hopelessly in their throats.
Melchor writes with such force that you are helpless to resist the narrative. I don’t know what I felt after reading Hurricane Season. Not better. But I read it six months ago and it’s still on my mind.
You can order Hurricane Season at your local bookstore or online at:
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >