The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia book review

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In HG Wells’s “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” a mad British scientist sets up shop on a remote island where he reshapes animals into beastly caricatures of human beings. This 1896 science-fiction classic has inspired film versions starring Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer as well as numerous references in novels and pop culture, including an episode of “The Simpsons.”

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “The Daughter of Doctor Moreau” offers yet another twist: Here, the mad scientist has a daughter named Carlota who is nothing like her dad. Carlota pushes back on antiquated notions about women’s capabilities and their place in the world, turning the Victorian-era novel into an atmospheric feminist tale that melds horror, history and a little romance.

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The novel’s first half is laid out as objectively as Moreau’s scientific journals: Moreau, over the years, was “afflicted with a strange creative streak,” Moreno-Garcia writes, and “had made furry hybrids with hunched shoulders and short forearms, but also apelike things whose knuckles could brush the ground when they walked.” These horrible creatures suffer with tumors, painful joints and other infirmities. And yet, Moreau insists his work is a higher calling.

Moreau claims his experiments will someday unlock cures for human diseases, and he offers no more powerful example than Carlota, whom he claims is kept alive with injections that derive their healthful properties from jaguars. Science aside, Carlota pushes the novel forward as she grows up alone with her father dela in a hacienda that is also home to more than two dozen hidden-away hybrids. Moreno-Garcia’s creatures are more human than Wells’s; many speak fluently and have human mindsets. Some seem even more human than Carlota, whose cloistered life feels similar to that of the lifeless dolls which she plays with and mimics in dress.

The novel’s second half burns hot with the appearance of Eduardo Lizalde, son of Moreau’s benefactor. A handsome, privileged dandy, Eduardo falls for the 19-year-old Carlota. He also has reasons for wanting the hybrids. When the creatures and the Moreaus are threatened, Carlota extends her claws literally and figuratively. Her gradual awakening of her is hypnotic and a nod to Moreno-Garcia’s ability to write female characters whose self-discovery empowers them: “Sometimes she imagined stretched out, under the shape of herself of the sun, in the rays of a jaguar, the taste of meat thick on her tongue.” You may guess how this plot unfolds, but it still surprises.

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The Mexico-born Moreno-Garcia sets her novel in 1871, during the Caste War of Yucatán, when native Maya people were rebelling against the Mexicans and Europeans who abused them and forced them to work on their farms and ranches. This setting adds a powerful historical sensitivity to a tale that reflects an era fraught with anti-feminism, misogyny, racism, and class and caste differences. As in the original, “Daughter” also features a thought-provoking consideration of the moral responsibilities of scientists as well as the controversies surrounding eugenics.

Despite its dark story of oppression and cruelty, Moreno-Garcia — whose previous books include “Mexican Gothic” (2020) and “Velvet Was the Night” (2021) — instills the novel with action sequences showcasing violent conflicts between humans and hybrids. And she injects the novel’s gory battles with cinematic energy equal to that seen in the Universal Studios’ monster movies and other genre classics.

What Moreno-Garcia really does, though, is explore who the real monsters are in the world. Those are definitely not the hybrids, despite “the fur and fang and fury” that Moreno-Garcia unleashes as justice claws its way through the book’s final pages.

Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin.

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

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