‘Lavish and warped’ [book review]

A review of Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes

It happens. Every now and again, a book comes along and takes my words away.

That it should this year have been Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, in the blistering English translation by Sophie Hughes, didn’t come as a great surprise. I’ve spent a lot of the past few months reading or hearing about this particular novel, which was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, but somehow left it a long time before actually picking up a copy – admittedly with slight trepidation, as hype definitely doesn’t always equate to enjoyment. When I did, though, I found myself having one of the most powerful reading experiences I can remember. In short order, Hurricane Season had me mesmerised, aghast, sickened, weeping. And filled with a sense of profound respect for both writer and translator, whose skill with words and way of looking at the world left me feeling things I never normally expect to encounter when reading.

Hurricane Season Fernanda Melchor

Divided into eight chapters, each told from a different viewpoint, Hurricane Season illuminates the lives of La Matosa, a fictional village in Mexico. Though much of the novel is dark – be that in tone or content, or the simple fact that a lot of the action takes place by night – ‘illuminate’ still seems to be the right word here: the force of each chapter is such that it reads as though a blinding light has been turned on one particular character, forcing them into the reader’s consciousness with an intensity that is almost frightening. Despite the fact that our narrators are highly unreliable, contradicting one another and even themselves, we slowly build up a picture of events surrounding the mysterious death of one La Matosa resident: a reclusive, shadowy figure known to everyone as ‘the Witch’. The discovery of her bloated body in an irrigation ditch at the start of the novel sets in motion a train of violence, suffering and despair so extreme it is hard to process it fully, and equally hard to look away. To steal the words of one of Melchor’s characters, reading this book is ‘a bit like swallowing a grenade with the pin pulled’.

Gathering pace like a whirlwind as it goes, the sheer, brilliant force of Hurricane Season comes from the way in which it is narrated. While the events of the novel are hard enough to stomach – murder, sickness, rape, abortion, poverty, violence, pornographic sex – they are relayed to us in such a flurry of words that reading about them becomes an almost out-of-body experience. Melchor’s language is so immediate, so filled with harshness and obscenities, as ‘lavish and warped’ as the Witch herself, that we are placed, whether we like it or not, right in the thick of things. At the same time, this deluge of words conveys us along at a pace that makes it almost impossible to grasp exactly what is happening; instead, we find ourselves swept away on a tide of emotions, feeling the story rather than seeing it. The total lack of paragraphs, and punctuation used such that it may as well not be there at all, brings Hurricane Season crashing into the reader’s consciousness, capturing us irrevocably.

Although it is all but impossible to be anything other than entranced by this novel, on the few occasions I did come up for air I couldn’t stop thinking about the translation. This wasn’t because I was aware of it in any textual way – Hughes’s work reads like a dream, capturing surrealist, fairy-tale-esque elements, and inserting expletives and sharp imagery in such a way that the novel feels thought rather than written – but because I couldn’t help wondering what it had felt like to render such an explosive text into English. To be involved so closely with a book of this nature, to live it with the intensity required of the translator, is one of the hardest literary tasks of all, and Sophie Hughes deserves nothing but admiration for the wonder she has performed.

I often found myself holding my breath while reading, so caught up was I in the tidal wave of language. Yet despite the unrelenting quality of the brutality, hopelessness and sorrow that engulfs the residents of La Matosa – none more so than the women among them – there is incredible fight in this novel, an intense authorial compassion that makes us subconsciously accept and understand the choices made by men and women on the brink. Aided again by the spiralling structure, one thing leads to another in Hurricane Season: the logic is unquestionable, yet terrifying when we pause to think about it. An extraordinarily affecting portrait of the violence and femicide engulfing Mexico, the novel also seems to have a timeless quality to it, serving as a critical commentary on human society in general. It may be something we wish to look away from – this thinly veiled critique, or the more horrifying passages of sexual violence or bloodshed – yet somehow, miraculously, Melchor’s use of language means that we can’t. Embark on reading Hurricane Season, and you’re in it for the ride.

But then, of course, there is an ending. Almost impossible to get right in a novel that lives from its relentlessness – how do you stop a runaway train? – Melchor has created a small masterpiece here. Reading breathlessly up to the very final page, the last lines offered a sense of such futility and redemption that I was left quite literally reeling.

Hurricane Season is a slap in the face. A wake-up call, if you like. And to say that it has changed me is no exaggeration. Change can occur in the most infinitesimal ways, can be triggered by places or events that might at first glance seem unassuming. The best books stay anchored within us, informing our outlook, opinions, even the way we conduct our lives. Literature has the power to make an impact where other mediums may fail, and the importance of translation in widening our horizons, opening us up to so much more of that literary force, is particularly evident in a book like this. Without Melchor, without Hughes, my year would have been different – maybe in a small way, but one that counts all the same. Reading this book, I learned a lot about people. About damage and hope, pain and redemption. But also about writing and translation, about the strength that lies in simple words, about how story and structure fit together. It was a lot to take in in one go, and something I will be thinking about for a long time to come.

This, then, is less a review, more a reaction. As a reader, the effect of Hurricane Season was nothing short of devastating. As a writer, it helped me to feel free.

4 thoughts on “‘Lavish and warped’ [book review]

  1. Ooh, phenomenal review! I’ve just got a copy of this book and am so excited to read it (in January), especially now seeing how effective you found both the story and translation. I really like the idea of the eight narrators and their contradictions, and now can’t wait to see for myself the power of that ending!

    Liked by 2 people

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