by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Baja California, 1979. Viridiana spends her days watching the dead sharks piled beside the seashore, as the fishermen pull their nets. There is nothing else to do, nothing else to watch, under the harsh sun. She’s bored. Terribly bored. Yet her head is filled with dreams of Hollywood films, of romance, of a future beyond the drab town where her only option is to marry and have children.
Three wealthy American tourists arrive for the summer, and Viridiana is magnetized. She immediately becomes entwined in the glamorous foreigners’ lives. They offer excitement, and perhaps an escape from the promise of a humdrum future.
When one of them dies, Viridiana lies to protect her friends. Soon enough, someone’s asking questions, and Viridiana has some of her own about the identity of her new acquaintances. Sharks may be dangerous, but there are worse predators nearby, ready to devour a naïve young woman who is quickly being tangled in a web of deceit.
I received an eARC of Untamed Shore from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
By this point I think we all know that I’m Silvia Moreno-Garcia trash, and I’m so pleased to say that her first thriller, and first non-speculative novel, is a novel I really enjoyed.
Set in Mexico in the late 1970s, Untamed Shore follows 18-year-old Viridiana, who longs to leave Baja California for Mexico City, where she can put her fluency in four languages to use in a job that doesn’t involve leading ungrateful tourists around her hometown or working in her mother’s shop. When three Americans arrive for the summer and Viridiana is hired as, essentially, a PA, she seizes the opportunity they bring her for excitement from the humdrum of her life, until the summer takes a dark, deceitful turn.
I love the way Moreno-Garcia writes about Mexico, and from the very first page of this novel the atmosphere feels sinister, oppressive, like something’s waiting to happen just around the corner. And when you sign up to read a thriller, you know something is going to happen. The heat seems unrelenting, and you can always count on characters in extreme weather conditions, whether they be hot or cold, to become irritable with one another. Maybe even dangerously so.
This is a thriller that takes its time, Moreno-Garcia never rushes things, and yet I read it in two days. It’s incredibly readable, but you won’t find the kind of thriller here in which a new dead body’s turning up every five minutes and the hunt is on to find the killer. This isn’t a whodunnit, we already know who, but a novel about class, consequences and learning to hold your own.
Viridiana, like all of Moreno-Garcia’s heroines, is such an interesting protagonist to follow. At times she’s a little frustrating – more than once I wanted to give her a shake and say, ‘dammit, woman, open your eyes!’ – but she’s also only 18 and, though very intelligent, isn’t particularly worldly yet, which means it’s so much easier for her to be taken advantage of. Especially by a group of Americans who can go anywhere and do anything because they’re wealthy and white.
By the end of this novel, though, I guarantee you’ll be cheering Viridiana on. There’s very little I want to say about the plot because it’s not a particularly complex one, and it doesn’t need to be, but there are little twists and turns throughout that I don’t want to ruin. Ultimately Untamed Shore reads like a coming-of-age novel in the guise of a thriller, and Viridiana’s growth from the very first page to the very last, whether for good or for bad, is so compelling. She’s ruthless when she needs to be, and I love her for it.
I worried that I might miss the elements of fantasy or sci-fi that I’m used to encountering in Moreno-Garcia’s work, but this novel has proven that I’ll read basically anything she writes – I’d probably read her shopping list, to be honest – and I’d happily read another thriller from her in future. If I wasn’t already excited for Mexican Gothic (spoiler: I was), I certainly am now!