A Terrible Beauty: On Fernanda Melchor’s “Hurricane Season”

By Amanda DennisMarch 31, 2020

A Terrible Beauty: On Fernanda Melchor’s “Hurricane Season”

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

HURRICANE SEASON TAKES ITS first epigraph from W. B. Yeats’s poem “Easter, 1916.” Yeats describes an Irish rebel executed by a British firing squad: “He, too, has resigned his part / In the casual comedy; / He, too, has been changed in his turn, / Transformed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” These lines about revolutionary politics in early 20th-century Ireland may seem a contextually odd fit for a novel about a femicide in Veracruz — the murder of someone the villagers call the Witch. The second epigraph, from Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s Las Muertas, is more topical. Yet Yeats’s meditation on gratuitous violence, the tragedy of suffering that could have been avoided, and its devastating transformations (a terrible beauty is born) speaks to the powerfully ambivalent emotions one feels reading Hurricane Season, which condemns violence — especially sexual violence — by depicting it unflinchingly, in scenes and language that make Truman Capote and Cormac McCarthy seem tame.

It is perhaps Melchor’s willingness to explode a violent act into multiple perspectives, to look at it again and again from different angles (perpetrator, bystander, accomplice) that makes Hurricane Season feel weightier than most contemporary fiction. This is a novel that sinks like lead to the bottom of the soul and remains there, its images full of color, its characters alive and raging against their fate. There is something archetypal, too, about the murder of the Witch, who lives in a rancid mansion outside the village, and whom the villagers use to titillate themselves while denying her personhood. Such precise pairing of human urgency and mythic resonance aligns Hurricane Season with the novels of Gabriel García Márquez (Melchor cites The Autumn of the Patriarch as a particular inspiration) and with those of Roberto Bolaño. Great care has gone into building the architecture of Hurricane Season, its multiple perspectives on a crime Melchor read about in a local newspaper, and yet the design is nowhere overwrought. The pages race by, and the voices of the characters ring out as naturally as if they had taken over pen and page, breathing into the writer’s body just long enough to tell their stories.

Four furious, interlocking novellas circle closer and closer to the murder of the Witch, bringing with them stories of a region beset by sexual abuse, corruption, poverty, addiction, suffering, and also great love. Horror is shot through with glimmers of beauty. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the close of the novel, when we pan back from the events of the story and join the Grandfather, who takes long drags from his cigarette and talks to the bodies of the dead as he buries them, covering them with sand and lime in mass graves outside the village. The bodies come to him from the morgue, and they are often mutilated: “faceless, sexless remnants of people.” He buries a young girl who had been chopped to pieces, her body wrapped in sky blue cellophane, as well as a flayed man and a newborn. The Grandfather reassures the dead. “Rain’s coming,” he tells them, as dark clouds roll in across the sky and far-off lightning flashes, but “[d]on’t you worry, don’t fret, you just lie there, that’s it. […] The rain can’t hurt you now and the darkness doesn’t last forever.”

Hurricane Season opens with the discovery of the Witch’s corpse, decomposing in an irrigation canal. The body is found by a group of children, making their way along a track leading up from the river. There is “the almost white sky thick with ethereal birds of prey and a terrible smell that hit them harder than a fistful of sand in the face.” With fine-grained realism, or with what one Mexican journalist calls “nightmarish realism,” Melchor describes “the rotten face of a corpse floating among the rushes and the plastic bags swept in from the road on the breeze, the dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes, smiling.” Most shocking is this smile, so out of tune with its body’s condition. This perverse incongruity sets the tone for the novel’s unsparing depiction of violence and the social conditions of this region of rural Mexico that nourish it.

Stylistically, the novel is composed of block paragraphs and long, propulsive sentences. Though they extend paragraphs, and sometimes pages, the sentences do not drag. On the contrary, there is a breathlessness to the prose, a break-neck rhythm, as if the characters were desperate to say as much as possible before our attention moves elsewhere. We feel the rhythms of this village, with its prostitutes on the highway, its men who work the oil fields, its women who run the fondas. We hear the rustle of the cane fields. We are made to bear witness, to be a living part of this world.

A communal voice guides the reader in short sections near the beginning and end of the novel — a garrulous, gossipy yet also wise voice, adept at spreading village lore. Perhaps it is the voice of the women of La Matosa who go to the Witch for remedies: “[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.” When the Witch is murdered, these women raise money to bury her, only to be prohibited by the police, since they cannot prove any relation. The women lament, “[P]oor Witch, poor crank, let’s just hope they catch the fucker or fuckers who slit her throat.” Here, and almost continuously in the novel, the prose takes on the distinctive locutions of the characters, regional ways of speaking, laden with obscenities. This is a great strength not only of the novel but of its English translation by Sophie Hughes, who renders a brilliant English idiolect.

This communal voice tells the story of the Witch and her mother. Salaciously, it imagines the mother witch fornicating with the devil, but we understand that her child, the young witch, is the result of a break-in and gang rape. Mother and daughter trade in curses and cures until the mother witch dies in the hurricane of ’78, leaving the Witch to carry on their work alone. The communal voice returns toward the end of the novel to recount how the police pillaged the Witch’s house, searching for treasure. After giving us a digest of horrific crimes, the voice turns oracular: “They say the heat’s driven the locals crazy, that it’s not normal — May and not a single drop of rain — and that hurricane season’s coming hard…”

At the center of Hurricane Season are four sections that move us closer and closer to the murder. Like Akutagawa’s “In a Grove,” we get different perspectives on a crime, a kaleidoscope of stories that enables us to piece together not only what happened, but also how and (most horrifically) why. Each point-of-view character has a distinctive, heartrending story: Yesenia is desperate to win the love of her grandmother, who favors her drug-addicted cousin, Luismi. Munra, unable to work after his leg was shattered in an accident, loses his wife to a cartel leader. Norma, a 13-year-old victim of sexual abuse and Luismi’s child bride, has the most affecting story of all. And then there is Brando, a disturbed teenager, bent on escape. The four stories circle around each other, texturing the novel, and Melchor uses repetition to great effect; anecdotes retold by different characters become familiar, and images recur. For instance, each character sees the same rotten apple pierced with a razor-sharp knife in the Witch’s house; each interacts with it differently. And each time we hear that Luismi and the Witch were lovers and fell out over money, we know more about their affair, we can fill in more detail. Strategic repetitions make the stories spin tighter and tighter around the novel’s empty center, and the characters, too, seem obsessed, driven to repeat their stories in rage, as if condemned “to walk in circles along that ominous path for all eternity.”

There is something horrifically timely, too, about reading Hurricane Season in the early days of 2020 (Temporada de huracanes was published in 2017), as newspapers continue to report on asylum seekers at the US border, held in deplorable conditions, many of whom are fleeing gang violence, domestic abuse, child rape, and femicide. Newspaper articles also describe the horrific conditions in which women’s bodies are sometimes found: flayings or other mutilations intended to send a message. According to the UN, one in three women in Latin America has experienced sexual or physical violence, and 98 percent of gender-related killings go unprosecuted. According to the Mexico office for UN women (November 2019), the number of women who die violently in Mexico has climbed to 10 per day. In Honduras, gender-based violence is the second leading cause of death for women of childbearing age. Law enforcement does little to help, and police are often part of the problem. Central American journalists, whose reporting is often the only record of such crimes, risk their lives. Many have been murdered. Protest movements, including Ni Una Menos (its slogan insists that not one more woman will be lost to violence), have done much to raise awareness about crimes committed against women, trans, and indigenous people, but the situation remains dire. Hurricane Season’s condemnation of femicide — or feminicidio, crimes against those who are feminized or regarded as feminine — is made more forceful by the fluid nature of the Witch’s gender. The Witch is referred to as “she,” but there are hints about her androgyny. She is “so tall, so ungainly, as spry as any boy.” She wears a long black dress and veil, and speaks with a deep, manly voice. Munra complains that “nobody had told him that the Witch they all went on about was in fact a man […] dressed in ladies clothing, and with long, black painted nails: a horror show.” The fact that the Witch’s gender is non-traditional makes her more hated, more feared, more vulnerable.

Hurricane Season taunts us, perhaps, with our own inclination to find meaning in suffering, to assign a purpose to violence — our all-too-human wish for a robust theodicy. We wonder about the meaning of the storm on the horizon at the end of the novel (the Grandfather must get the bodies into the ground before the skies open). Is there a cleansing flood on its way, one that will wipe out the horror we’ve witnessed? We might think again of Yeats and his astonishment at the martyrdom of the Irish rebels, expressed by the oxymoron: terrible beauty. More than a century later, we understand how these murdered rebels helped gather public support, increasing momentum for political change. But there is no analogous redemption in Hurricane Season, not yet. If we want to know the names of murdered journalists, if we want to locate the particular injustices that fed the rage in Melchor’s novel, we must look to the acknowledgments. The novel does not, nor should it, tell us how to act. Instead its terrible beauty carves a wound, painful enough to startle us out of our complacency.


Amanda Dennis is a writer and academic based in Paris. She holds a PhD from Berkeley and an MPhil in European Literature and Culture from Cambridge. She also has an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her debut novel, Her Here, will be published by Bellevue Literary Press in March 2021.

LARB Contributor

Amanda Dennis is a writer and academic based in Paris. Her writing has appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature and the Journal of Beckett Studies (among other places), and she is working on a book about Beckett and French phenomenology. She holds a PhD from Berkeley and an MPhil in European Literature and Culture from Cambridge. She also has an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her debut novel, Her Here, will be published by Bellevue Literary Press in March 2021.


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