Witches, by Brenda Lozano

Trigger warning for rape, anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice, and interpersonal violence.

There are so many things we don’t know about ourselves. There are medicines we take for which we don’t know the mechanism of action. There are ailments that we don’t have good treatments for or, sometimes, any treatment at all. Perhaps the most mysterious illnesses of all are the ones that afflict our psyches or, as the protagonist of Brenda Lozano’s affecting novel, The Witches, would say: sickness in our soul or our “deep waters.” Feliciana, modeled in part on real-life curandera María Sabina Magdalena García, has been healing people’s sick souls for decades through veladas, ceremonies involving the use of psychoactive mushrooms. When journalist Zoe comes to interview Feliciana after the murder of Feliciana’s transgender mentor and friend, Paloma, we see how Feliciana works her magic on maladies that no one else would consider curable.

The Witches is thoughtfully translated by Heather Cleary, who also writes a very informative introduction that I recommend to readers who aren’t familiar with curanderos or third-gender people in Mesoamerican cultures.

Feliciana and Paloma are the children of curanderos. Their family knowledge of local flora and fungi give them the ability to heal people with conditions Westerners might diagnose as alcoholism, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Over the years, attention from Western researchers, doctors, and (mostly) celebrities has turned her into a powerful woman who is viewed with jealousy by many people in her small Mexican village. But whatever ire is directed towards Feliciana pales in comparison to the violence faced by muxe Paloma, who we only meet through Feliciana’s memories about her mentor and friend. Just before the book opens, Paloma is murdered by a man who she accidentally infected with “a disease unborn,” which I think means HIV.

Psilocybe caerulescens, one of several psychoactive mushrooms used in Mesoamerican healing (Image via Wikicommons)

Feliciana tells her story—and Paloma’s story—to Zoe, a journalist who has reached the end of her psychological endurance. Just as Feliciana relates her life story, the curandera asks Zoe about her own life. It isn’t hard to see the parallels between Zoe and Feliciana’s lives: parents with abilities beyond the strictly mundane, sisters with histories of abuse, and pressure to “stay in their place” from society at large. The big difference between the two is that Feliciana has a deep, hopeful faith that everything wrong can be righted whereas Zoe has struggled to function and find happiness in her own life.

While Witches is primarily centered on the women’s lives, it does touch briefly on cultural appropriation, the limits of faith and healing, and the duty to one’s own happiness versus the duty to use one’s knowledge to help the community. I was glad to see these topics addressed because it enriches what is already a fascinating pair of stories. I would definitely recommend this to readers looking for a soul-deep story about hope, healing, and honesty.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

There’s a line in the movie Jurassic Park, spoken by Dr. Ian Malcom, that I will always remember: “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t start to think if they should.” This line is the perfect summary for so many Faustian tales. It’s definitely true for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest amazing novel, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, inspired by another classic Faustian story The Island of Doctor Moreau. But where those stories focus on the Faust character and his moral dilemmas, Moreno-Garcia puts the emphasis squarely on the fallout of a scientist’s careless meddling with the natural order.

Jules Verne’s island, in this version, is a remote corner of the Yucatán peninsula. It is isolated by dense jungle and fears of Mayans rebelling against oppressive landowners. The only contact the eponymous daughter, Carlota Moreau, and her father and their companions have with the outside world are occasional visits from the man who funds Doctor Moreau’s hacienda and his research. We meet Carlota just before another visit from Señor Lizalde, who has arrived with a new assistant and another exhortation for Doctor Moreau to give him something he can actually use to recoup his investment. The new assistant, Montgomery (and our second narrator, after Carlota), was hired to keep an eye on the doctor as much as anything else.

Up until this point, if you didn’t know about The Island of Doctor Moreau, it would be easy to ignore the hints that something very strange is going on at the Moreau’s hacienda. There are hints that, apart from the Moreaus and their housekeeper, the other inhabitants are not entirely human. We only learn the truth from Montgomery’s reaction when he meets one of the sentient animal hybrids the doctor has created. It seems as though Doctor Moreau has been tinkering with genetics, although he never calls it that. His creations are not healthy. They’re in pain. They have short lives. All Doctor Moreau really cares about is perfecting his methods, so he doesn’t have much to do with the hybrids he’s created so far. Carlota does the caring for him.

Illustration from a 1904 Russian edition of The Island of Doctor Moreau (Image via Wikicommons)

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau bounces back and forth between Carlota and Montgomery narrating events. From Carlota, we find a deep love of others and the hacienda. She worries about everyone but is stymied by her father’s controlling ways; she can’t do much more than try to keep the show running while he works in his lab. On Montgomery’s side, we get a lot of confusion over what on earth is happening. He eventually settles in. He cares, too, but his prickly personality doesn’t let him show it. Through their eyes we see events start to escalate. Señor Lizalde wants his money and the hybrids, promised to him as workers by Moreau. His son, who turns up following rumors of Mayan revels, suddenly decides that he wants the beautiful Carlota. Before long, it’s impossible for anyone to hide away at the hacienda.

This summary isn’t capturing the sweltering, hypnotic atmosphere of The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. Carlota in particular is an amazing narrator. I loved spending time with her, even if she shares her father’s stubbornness and can be just as prickly as Montgomery at times. In addition to watching events through her eyes, we see Carlota grow up from a sheltered child to a fierce young woman. She struggles against her conditioning to obey, not make a fuss, and her sense of duty towards others. And the best part of watching her grow is seeing Carlota find hidden, possibly animal, depths.

I’m still not describing this fantastic book correctly. Go read it. Trust that Moreno-Garcia has delivered another brilliant, engrossing, psychologically deep, beautifully detailed story. This book is one of her best.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Velvet Was the Night, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I used to pet sit fairly regularly for co-workers and friends. It was a fun way to meet new critters and the pocket money was always appreciated. Thankfully, none of my pet-sitting gigs ever turned into the deadly, bewildering ride protagonist Maite Jaramillo finds herself on in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Velvet Was the Night. Near the beginning of this thriller, Maite’s neighbor asks her to feed her cat while she’s away for a few days. The neighbor then disappears, landing Maite right in the middle of student protesters, menacing government officials, and a paramilitary group that specializes in cracking dissident heads.

Maite is thirty when Velvet Was the Night opens, sometime in the early 1970s and somewhere in Mexico City. She has her own apartment and a killer record collection, but those are about the only things she has going for her. She has no love life to speak of (although she makes things up for her coworkers), a dead-end job for a lawyer with unspeakably smelly feet, no friends, few hobbies, and a car being held hostage at the mechanics. Meanwhile, Elvis works for El Mago as a member of the Hawks. He goes where El Mago tells him and does whatever dirty work he’s been ordered to, although he loathes his cohorts and their machismo. Like Maite, Elvis (his pseudonym) is stuck in a dead end—neither of them has the education for anything better than what they’re doing, not the ambition to try and get out of their current situations. That said, they’re both aware enough to know that there is more in the world to want than what they have.

Shortly after Maite agrees to feed her neighbor’s cat, Elvis gets the word from El Mago to follow Maite. Since the neighbor is gone, Maite is the Hawk’s best chance to recover incriminating photos taken by the neighbor. Maite has no clue about these photos initially, at least until she learns more about the neighbor’s dissident activities and realizes that she’s being followed. Those photos are a great McGuffin. No one seems to know what’s on them; all anyone knows is that they could be explosive if they were made public. The Hawks want them. The Dirección Federal de Seguridad (Federal Security Directorate) wants them. People who have ties to the Hawks and the DFS want them. The student dissidents want them. Everyone comes out of the woodwork to get Maite and those photos.

Because we readers are tagging along with both Maite and Elvis, we get the see events in stereo. It’s only near the very end that Maite and Elvis meet properly. The dual narratives gave me the curious feeling of being the hunter and the hunted at the same time. The dual narratives also turned out to be a very clever way to dole out information about motives, conspiracies, counter-conspiracies, and all the other machinations going on in Velvet Was the Night. While Elvis is learning more about all the people after Maite and developing doubts about El Mago, Maite learns just how illusory her world of respectabilty really is—and we get a fast dive into life during what is now known as the Mexican Dirty War.

My education was woefully lacking when it came to Mexican (and Canadian, for that matter) history, politics, literature, etc., etc. As I read about Maite’s perils—and the parallel narrative featuring one of those paramilitary thugs—I had to hop over to Wikipedia more than once to learn more about the Mexican Dirty War, Luis Echeverría, and the Tlatelolco Massacre. Funny enough, my lack of knowledge about Mexican politics matched up with Maite’s, since she never reads the news. I know that my preference for learning about the world and its history through fiction isn’t ideal (but fight me!), but books like Velvet Was the Night make history a lot more entertaining and somehow more real. When I read historical fiction, characters come to life and navigate their way through complex realities in a way that I think even the best nonfiction falls short of. The characters of Velvet Was the Night remind me that all of those people we read about (or, more likely, are glossed over) in history texts are real people, with personal failings and dumb luck, who mostly just want to grab a bit of comfort and happiness for themselves before it’s all over.

The Guardian of Amsterdam Street, by Sergio Schmucler

Galo’s house at one end of Amsterdam Street, Mexico City, is the result of a series of mistakes. First, the oval street was supposed to be a round track. Then a house was promised in such a position it messes up the layout of the street. More mistakes cause that house to become the home of a carpenter in the middle of a well-to-do area. This series of chance occurrences sets the tone for The Guardian of Amsterdam Street, by Sergio Schmucler and smoothly translated by Jessica Sayer. Galo grows up in that house believing that he must guard it and the memories of its inhabitants so that the world can keep spinning on.

Galo—who always seems like a child to me even though this book covers decades—is the kind of character I can’t help but try to diagnose. His worldview has a lot of the hallmarks of different kinds of mental illness. Does he have obsessive compulsive disorder? Is he a touch schizophrenic? The actual mental illness might be important, but it drives the small plot of The Guardian of Amsterdam Street. Just like a series of mistakes led to Galo’s family living in the house on Amsterdam Street, a series of tragedies lead Galo to believe that he must save cut hair to preserve memories and nurture a bougainvillea tree planted by his mother. He also never leaves the house. If he does, the whole delicate operation will collapse. His mother worries about him, but everyone is content to leave Galo alone. They explain him to others by saying that his mind isn’t right.

After Galo’s father leaves just before the outbreak of World War II (caused by a surprising act of violence by his mother), Galo’s mother Guadalupe rents out two rooms to a series of boarders: Jewish refugees, a Republican Spanish hairdresser, and a certain Argentinian revolutionary, among others. Galo strikes up conversations with the boarders about life, disappointment, and making homes in new places. He also quietly and secretively going about his tasks while the world goes by on Amsterdam Street. Small references to outside events let us know just how much time passes Galo by: the death of Francisco Franco, names of Mexican presidents, different waves of refugees and immigrants speaking different languages and different dialects of Spanish. So even though Galo will not go outside, his life is fairly cosmopolitan.

Because no one really pushes Galo out the front door (not after the first couple of times), I was able to set aside judgment (if not my mental armchair psychologist). I knew Galo’s behavior isn’t normal, but what did it hurt to have Galo do what he thought was necessary to keep the world and time rolling along. Amsterdam—and by extension the world—has room for everyone, including eccentrics who don’t hurt anyone. That said, Galo does come to a realization at the end of The Guardian of Amsterdam Street. Most of the book asks what’s worth preserving; the end asks, at what point do we have to let go of preserving the past so that we can move in new directions.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

City of Omens, by Dan Werb

Though banal, it’s true that there are a lot of massive, seemingly unsolvable problems in western society. One of these—drugs—was approached as the War on Drugs. The direct approach has been a disaster by all accounts. Shooting the problem, as it were, only makes other problems instead of getting at its root. But where do we put our efforts? Where do we aim? Scientists like Dan Werb, epidemiologist and author of City of Omens, look for that spot by taking several steps back. Instead of looking at the outcomes, they look for the chain of causes that led to the outcomes. In this case, the problem is rampant drug addiction, the unchecked spread of HIV, and the deaths of thousands of women in the city of Tijuana, Mexico. The causes of these outcomes are complicated and surprising…but not as unsolvable as we might have thought.

Werb began his work studying the spread of HIV via intravenous drug use in Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside. For years, the approach to the problem was rounding up users, destroying their needles, and incarcerate sellers and addicts alike. None of it stopped the spread. In fact, researchers found that things were getting worse. When the official approach changed to offering needle exchanges and rehab, HIV started to go down. There wasn’t an explosion of drug use or violence, as sceptics thought. Werb’s work attracted the eye of researchers who did similar work in Tijuana. He leapt at the chance to do something with all the statistical tools in his arsenal. He turns epidemiological methods into an extended metaphor by trying to find the pathogen causing so much death and sickness across the city.

So, starting around 2015, Werb started work with Proyecto Cuete (Project Needle). He conducted years of interviews with addicts and sex workers who operated in Tijuana’s notorious Zona Norte and other drug-use hotspots. The interviews turned into mountains of data points in spreadsheets, fed into statistical models. Werb explains his process over and over; there are several places where I started skimming. The best parts of this book are where Werb lets his subjects speak for themselves. A social scientist will bury a reader in undeniable data but, as an English major, I would’ve told Werb that stories are the best way to get change rolling. We even see this when Proyecto Cuete get the Tijuana police to change their policy of destroying needles by telling them that officers can avoid dangerous needlesticks by not handling users’ kits at all.

Werb’s long view (although I have some editorial comments about how he presents his findings) points out so many places where society is going wrong. He never says it explicitly, but Werb calls for a lot more compassion in how drug users and sex workers are treated by law enforcement and society. Throwing people in jail and/or fining them does nothing except drive everything underground and make it all more dangerous. We all need to take several steps back to find ways to make life safer for people who are often seen as thrown away, dropouts, and losers. People are going to use drugs. People are going to pay for and sell sex. None of this means that they are less worthy of life. And, as Werb points out, none of this is unsolvable.

Traffic in Tijuana, near the Mexico-US border c. 2006 (Image via Wikicommons)

The City of Palaces, by Michael Nava

A big part of why I love historical fiction set in other countries is that they help me fill in gaps in my very America-centric United States education. These books invariably spur me to look up names and places and events that I don’t know so that I can get the full history that the novels allude to. So many novels have turned into cramming sessions on missed history. This is especially true of The City of Palaces, by Michael Nava. Even though my county shares an almost 2,000 mile border with Mexico, I know embarrassingly little about Mexican history. Nava’s novel dropped me into the end of dictator Porfirio Díaz‘ regime and the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. Nava made me feel like I was right there with the Sarmiento-Gavilán family as they lived through it.

The City of Palaces centers on two characters who meet for the first time in a prison, just a few years before the end of the nineteenth century. Miguel Sarmiento is there, facing his demons, to help deliver the child of a prisoner. Alicia Gavilán is there doing charitable work among the women. Even though Alicia wears a veil (to hide her smallpox scars), her determination and no-nonsense attitude make an impression on Miguel. Before long, Miguel and Alicia have struck up a friendship. Both characters are members of the Mexican elite, but feel like outsides. Miguel’s father was an enemy of Díaz and Miguel had to leave the country because of his own scandal. Alicia’s scars caused her to be left out of the aristocratic marriage market, while her own deep faith has led her to do more work among the poor than most of her circle consider seemly. It’s not love at first sight but Miguel and Alicia grow to admire and love each other over time.

After they marry and settle down in Alicia’s mother’s palace, Miguel and Alicia find themselves pushing against systemic corruption and racism to try and do a bit of good. In addition to what I learned about Díaz and Mexican politics at the beginning of the twentieth century, I also learned about the horrific treatment of the Yaqui people by the Mexican government. Alicia in particular gets deeply involved in an underground railroad to smuggle enslaved and orphaned Yaquis out of Mexico and into the United States, where they can regroup to fight for their ancestral homeland. Meanwhile, Miguel fights a Sisyphean battle against diseases like cholera and typhus as part of the public health department. His boss is very sympathetic to Miguel and very eager to help, but most of the government’s funds are tied up in President Díaz’ efforts to turn Mexico City into a city of palaces and monuments.

The City of Palaces is, for the most part, a slow burn of a novel. Things only start to happen quickly once the Revolution begins. Before the plot sped up, I was able to sink into the richly-described setting of the Gaviláns’ palace, the neighborhoods of Xochimilco and Milpa Alta, and other places the Sarmientos visit. (I really want to visit Mexico City now, to see all of the buildings and plazas I looked up on Wikipedia in real life.) Nava’s novel never feels like a textbook or a tourist guide. All of the research that must have gone into The City of Palaces is beautifully used to bring the history back to life.

The City of Palaces is a terrific read for anyone interested in the history of Mexico—especially for readers who want characters who try to make a difference instead of just getting caught up in big events.

Palacio Nacional, Mexico City, taken between 1865 and 1892 (Image via Wikicommons)

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

No good deed goes unpunished. Fortunately, most people’s good deeds don’t involve the harrowing, strange things that Noemí’s does. In Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Noemí Taboada is asked to leave her glamorous life of parties and clothes and university studies to check in on her cousin, Catalina. Catalina moved away to a remote estate in Hidalgo after her marriage and now, months later, she sends a strange letter back home that has everyone worried for her sanity.

Mexican Gothic, after a brief glimpse of the wealthy high life of Mexico City, quickly becomes a pressure cooker once Noemí arrives at High Place to see Catalina and her new husband, Virgil Doyle. High Place is the kind of manor that immediately makes the hair on one’s neck rise up and refuse to lay back down. The near-silent servants are just a small part of what’s wrong about the place. The building is musty and damp; its glory days are clearly behind it. Worst of all are the Doyles. These immigrant English now living in the heart of Mexico’s silver country are awful. They’re imperious, racist, and very, very creepy. Noemí is baffled as to why Catalina would ever want to stay at High Place. When she finally sees her cousin, Noemí wants to take her away immediately. Things are not right at High Place.

Moreno-Garcia brilliantly creates a claustrophobic atmosphere at High Place while slowly filling in details about the Doyle family and its history with the silver miners that alarm Noemí even more. Mexican Gothic is the kind of book that I inhaled as quickly as I could. I had to know what happened to Noemí and Catalina and Noemí’s reluctant ally, Francis Doyle. Noemí is a fantastic character. I loved that she is portrayed as determined, intelligent, and very fond of beautiful clothes. And not only did the characters capture me, but I relished Moreno-Garcia’s twist on the creepy-house-and-family-Gothic story. I felt shades of Rebecca and Dracula here, but this book is all Moreno-Garcia. I love originality.

Hurricane Season, by Fernanda Melchor

Trigger warnings for physical and sexual abuse of children, and homophobic violence and language.

I don’t know why I finished reading Hurricane Season, by Fernanda Melchor (expertly translated by Sophie Hughes). This literary mystery set in southern Mexico contains many upsetting passages of frankly pornographic sex and anti-gay language and violence. I started skipping things as I got further into the book. I guess, in the end, I stuck it out because I wanted to know more details of the tangle of events that led to the death of a trans woman known only as the Witch, in the poverty-stricken village of La Matosa.

Hurricane Season begins with the discovery of the Witch’s body in an irrigation ditch. This brief chapter is followed by many long, single-paragraph stream of consciousness chapters that dive into the thoughts and histories of other characters who know different pieces of what happened. Although I appreciate Melchor’s skill in recreating what really sounds like all of these characters’ inner monologues, these chapters are physically hard to read. If you lose your place in the long, long paragraphs, it takes effort to find your place again. These chapters are also emotionally hard to read, as characters recount the abuse they’ve suffered or inflicted on others.

The events that led to the Witch’s death slowly form out of those long paragraphs. The Witch, the daughter of the Old Witch, provides cures and curses, but mostly abortions to the local sex workers. She is also the lover of Luismi, a closeted gay man. Curiously, there are a lot of men who have sex with men in La Matosa and its environs who vehemently deny being gay or bisexual. This dynamic and the Witch’s procurement of abortions, drugs, rumors that the Witch’s house contains treasure, and a lot of entitlement all conspire in her murderers’ heads to cause her murder.

I asked myself as I read about the anarchic, ignorant, hedonistic world of La Matosa if the text was reveling in the misery and hopelessness of the characters. I’ve read books in the past that feel like the author kicked over a rock, shone a light, and gleefully described what they saw with plenty of editorializing about the evils of capitalism, drugs, etc.. Melchor doesn’t do that. Instead, it felt like the characters—especially one of the Witch’s murderers—are allowed to damn themselves in their own words. Melchor’s presence is invisible.

And yet, for all Melchor’s brilliant, skillful writing, I would have a hard time recommending Hurricane Season to others. The content of the book is frequently shocking, horrifying, and extremely graphic when it comes to sex. To be blunt, no one in this book makes love; it’s all just fucking. The book is also tightly focused on a handful of characters, so Hurricane Season can’t really serve as a portrait of a place and a time that shows what happens in marginal places with no jobs, no police, no education, and no hope—but plenty of drugs and sex. This book was definitely not for me.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

On Swift Horses, by Shannon Pufahl

In the past, I’ve described books as slow burns. What I usually mean is that, as I read them, I can get a sense of a lit fuse at the center of the book. There are little sparks, gathering speed, usually towards some kind of dramatic explosion. The tension draws me along because I want to see what happens when the tinder lights. Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses never really lights my fire. This is a slow book. It’s also a very subtle one. In this novel, two LGBT characters carefully navigate their desires whilst keeping their secret in late-1950s California. For me, this book moves too slowly and is so subtle that I’m not sure I picked up everything that Pufahl put down in its pages.

Julius and Muriel recognize something in each other one hot summer day in Kansas. Julius and his brother, Lee (Muriel’s fiancé), will join the navy and head off for Korea. They have plans for the future. For that moment, on that summer afternoon, they feel a close but ineffable kinship. This is the last time they will really, fully connect. After her wedding, Muriel and Lee prepare to set up some kind of farm or orchard in California. Julius is rootless after his discharge from the navy; he breaks up the family plan and lights out for Las Vegas. From that moment of connection, Muriel and Julius barely cross paths. They only see each other when Julius drops by, leaves an alleged mustang (even though they don’t have a fence or a stable), and steals Muriel’s hidden stash of winnings from horse races.

Although their paths don’t physically cross, Julius and Muriel end up on parallel paths: seeking love. Julius is well aware that he is a gay man although, like every other person with same-sex attraction, he can’t actually put his feelings into words. He and all the other gay men in On Swift Horses operate in code and looks, all colored by the fear of retribution from the straight people that surround them. Muriel is not as aware of her sexuality as Julius. All she knows is that she doesn’t really love her husband. She went along with his plan to go with California but she never seems settled. She really only comes alive when she’s away from Lee, as when she best on the horses or when, in a moment of irresistible rightness, she kisses a woman for the first time.

Julius and Muriel are seekers. There’s nothing wrong with a book about seeking. I just wish that the pace hadn’t been so slow, or that I had been able to fully sympathize with the protagonists. Julius’ sudden moments of violence put me off. They came out of nowhere for me and never seemed justified. Muriel frustrated me—but I recognize this one as my problem, as I have a really hard time with people and characters who don’t know what they want beyond the fact that they don’t want what they have. All that said, Pufahl has beautiful writing and it’s nice to read a novel with LGBT characters (especially set in the middle of the twentieth century) in which love interests don’t die to add poignancy.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Murmur of Bees, by Sofía Segovia

Francisco Morales has lived a long time in exile, although his is not as extreme or as tangible as exile in the traditional sense. When he was nine years old, his mother packed up the entire household and relocated from the family orange orchard to Monterrey, Nuevo León. Until the day that Francisco calls a cab to travel back to Linares, the closest town to where the orchard was, he hasn’t talked about the real reason for the family’s move. He doesn’t even talk about it until the end of The Murmur of Bees, by Sofía Segovia (beautifully translated by Simon Bruni). Instead, Francisco tells us (through the taxi driver) about the first nine years of his life, how the Morales family converted their sugarcane farm into a massive orange orchard, and about his friendship with the unusual Simonopio, before he explains what he’s been running from all these years.

The Murmur of Bees doesn’t open with Francisco, really. Instead, it opens with the discovery of an infant Simonopio by the very agéd Nana Reja. Simonopio was abandoned because of his severe cleft lip and cleft palate—although it doesn’t help that he is also found covered in honey bees. One character, who quietly becomes Simonopio and the Morales’ family nemesis, says that Simonopio’s condition is because the devil kissed him. Nana Reja and the Morales family take the boy into their care. Simonopio turns out to have special abilities. He can predict the weather. He never gets lost. And he can talk to bees. Simonopio is about ten years older than Francisco, who wasn’t born until after the Spanish flu pandemic. The two boys have a close connection right from the start. They’re nearly inseparable until the day that Señora Morales takes the family to Monterrey.

Segovia has a great gift for relating a lot of history without bogging down the narrative. Through Francisco and the lives of the Morales family, we learn about the impact of the Mexican Revolution and the agrarian reform movement of the 1910s and 1920s, the influenza pandemic, sharecropping, the conflict between atheist socialists and the Catholic church, and so much more. I didn’t feel the need to go to Wikipedia to learn more—I had more than enough information—but neither did I feel like all this history distracted from the very human stories unfolding around the Morales orchard. I fell in love with so many of the characters because Francisco does such a good job of telling their stories. He only takes center stage in about a third of the chapters. He gives way to chapters about Simonopio, chapters about both of his parents, and even a few chapters from the perspective of Anselmo, the canker at the center of the thriving orchard and community.

The Murmur of Bees is a book that envelops its readers; I sank into this book like a warm bath. There are awful things that happen, but the worst detains are told in an oblique way that takes away a lot of the potential horror. The awful things are also surrounded by years of family tales, bits of magic, and fully-realized, wonderful characters. This book would be a brilliant choice for book groups, readers who want family sagas, readers who like more accessible magical realism, and readers who are curious about life in Mexico that’s not all about Día de Muertos. I have a feeling I’m going to be recommending this book to a lot of people in the future.