Silvia Moreno-Garcia seems determined to prove that she can deliver in any genre. Her breakout book Mexican Gothic was, as the name suggests, in the traditional gothic style with a Mexican twist; her book The Beautiful Ones was a historical fantasy set in an alternate Central America; and her Gods of Jade and Shadow was a fantasy based around Mexican folklore. Velvet was the Night could not be more different from these – a historical thriller set in and around real events – but despite this difference it can clearly be identified as Moreno-Garcia’s style.
The book opens with the infamous massacre of students during a protest in Mexico city in 1971 (portrayed recently in Alfonso Cuarón’s movie Roma), known afterwards and El Halconazo. The riot earned this name due to the involvement of a semi official paramilitary group known as Las Halcones, translated here as the Hawks (also sometimes translated as the Falcons), who infiltrated the march and then beat and shot students and reporters while the police and military looked on. The remainder of the book occurs in the shadow of that event. That opening scene is told from the point of view of El Elvis, a young member of the Halcones, who will later be tasked with finding a woman called Eleonora who reputedly has photos that could implicate the gang.
The second strand of the novel revolves around Maite, a thirty-year old single woman who feels that her life is passing her by. Maite works as a secretary and lives her life through the pages of romance comics. Maite is asked by her neighbour to look after her cat when she goes away for a few days. It turns out that the neighbour is Eleonora. When Eleonora does not return Maite goes looking for her and gets pulled into a world of dissident students, the secret service, the KGB and, of course, Las Halcones.
The novel then charts Elvis and Maite’s separate, and very different attempts to track down Eleonora (and her photos). Through this process Elvis has his eyes opened to the world in which he lives, one of corruption and betrayal, while Maite finds herself drawn to the danger, adventure and romantic opportunity that the search provides her. And all the while Moreno-Garcia is exposing the web of political, military and secret service involvement in attempts to suppress student unrest.
While Velvet was the Night is a historical thriller it is never too far from the telenovela and pulp sensibility that lies just beneath the surface of Moreno-Garcia’s other novels. This approach is made explicit in Maite’s love of romance comics and her constant need to relate the events happening in her life with the events in those comics. But that sensibility, when polished up in this way delivers a page turning thriller with a romantic undertone. So that while there is violence and pain there is also the slow circling of Elvis and Maite as they come into each other’s orbit.
Velvet was the Night deals with and exposes a dark time in recent Mexican history but it does it with style and verve and through the eyes of two well drawn characters. And it is more evidence that perhaps Moreno-Garcia can, indeed, turn out great reads in any genre she turns her hand to.
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Harsh Times (Mario Vargas Llosa) – book review
- I Know What I Saw (Imran Mahmood) – book review
- A Voice in the Night (Sarah Hawthorn) – book review
Robert Goodman is a book reviewer, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and institutionalised public servant based in Sydney. This and over 450 more book reviews can be found on his website Pile By the Bed.