Size / / /

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau coverIn Greek mythology, a “chimera” is a hybrid creature, cobbled from multiple animal parts, an amalgamation of disparate components. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel—which reimagines H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)—is similarly chimeric, populated with beings that are half-human and half-animal, and straddling the varied elements of a Gothic romance, the ethics of scientific experimentation (and its complicity in colonialization), women’s rights (or the lack thereof), and the Caste War of Yucatán (1847-1901), all within three hundred or so pages. Yet the overall effect isn’t one of synergy but of disharmony, leaving the reader confused as to what sort of hybrid work the author was trying to create in the first place.

Of course, Silvia Moreno-Garcia isn’t unfamiliar with experimenting with genre boundaries, and with each new novel she crafts something original, whilst also more often than not rooting them in Mexican culture and folklore. From urban fantasy in Signal to Noise (2015) to updating the genre with much needed diversity in Mexican Gothic (2020), she has established herself as a master storyteller, known for her evocative prose, sharp character portraits, and dramatic plot twists. In The Beautiful Ones (2017), she skillfully created a fantastical novel of manners with courtly élan; she breathed old deities to life in Gods of Jade and Shadow (2019); and she explored noir aesthetics in Velvet Was the Night (2021).

So why is her latest book—one which styles itself as a historical retelling of sorts—such a mixed bag?

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is divided into three sections. The first part sets up the historical and anticolonial backdrop of the story and introduces us to the titular Doctor Moreau, his daughter Carlota, and the hybrids who have made Yaxaktun their home. They welcome the appointment of functioning alcoholic Montgomery Laughton as the new mayordomo or overseer of the “sanatorium.” Moreau is a French scientist, engrossed in the creation of hybrid creatures; he is funded by the wealthy Mr. Lizalde, who hopes that such beings shall eventually replace the need for indentured laborers and bring down the costs of running plantations—even though rebellions and nationalist sentiments are on the rise in Mexico.

The next segment, which forms the bulk of the novel, can perhaps be read as a standalone steamy historical romance, in which a twenty-year-old Carlota has to choose between the handsome, entitled, and racist Eduardo (Lizalde’s son) and the older, sullen Montgomery, who gambles away his wages and is drowning in self-loathing. To be fair, the Gothic genre isn’t really famous for giving women enough agency or choice when it comes to marriage prospects, and neither does it promise them happily-ever-afters; paradoxically, then, it is a relief when Carlota’s romance is cruelly cut short.

The novel’s final section aims to unite these varied elements in a cinematic conclusion that strives to be both uplifting and feminist but doesn’t quite succeed. Thus, the hybrids of Doctor Moreau—who have so far been sidelined—are called to arms, political leaders are name-dropped into the text, Carlota undergoes a physical and mental transformation to reclaim her agency, and all the toxic men in the novel are involved in an action-packed gunfight sequence that culminates in a bloodbath.

Since the book is at least two-thirds romantic drama, I tried to first assess The Daughter of Doctor Moreau as a Gothic romance. Like the protagonist of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), Carlota is similarly naïve—although thankfully not as self-effacing. She has a heart of gold and dreams of an idyllic and just world in which humans and hybrids can live together in peace and contentment. Unlike her father—whose illegal scientific experiments are a means to correct the imperfections in human physiology—and Lizalde—who continues to fund him in the hope of getting free labor for the fields—Carlota loves and cares for the hybrids as they are, treating them as family.

When Lizalde’s funding dwindles over the years, Carlota’s father spurs her to pursue his patron’s son, Eduardo, with the hope that, by trapping him in a marriage, Doctor Moreau will have full access to Lizalde’s vast wealth. Carlota—who has only read of passion in romance novels and has a grudging friendship with the much older Montgomery—is fascinated by her first experience of real courtship and eager to play her part in the plan:

In her pirate novels the women were kidnapped or met their lovers in exciting ways. To be courted implied a mundane process akin to the cooking of beans or the washing of linen. Yet it was also something alien, which she had yet to experience, and that itself might make it worthy of excitement even if other women were routinely courted. (pp. 94-95)

Eduardo displays no redeeming features, but she is quickly besotted by his beautiful green eyes. She is so impressed when she learns that he has read Ivanhoe that she is gleefully prepared to marry him:

Montgomery and her father thought little of her adventure novels, and she took Eduardo’s knowledge of the book to be a good omen. If he should enjoy the same literature she relished, she thought it must be indicative of a kindred spirit, perhaps of a good match. (p. 166)

To no one’s surprise except Carlota’s, despite his genteel manners and love for Ivanhoe, Eduardo isn’t a good man.

His cousin Isidro already has a distaste for the “savage” and “violent” hybrids, and he is quick to see through the courtship as Doctor Moreau’s attempt to regain funding and continue his experiments. So he writes a letter to Lizalde informing him of his son’s proclivities and enlists the aid of Montgomery (who has been fancying Carlota for a while now) to deliver it. Meanwhile, Eduardo and Carlota are so smitten with each other that they immediately discuss nuptials—and Carlota entreats him to give Yaxaktun to her as a “wedding gift,” to which he agrees (in the throes of midnight lovemaking). When Lizalde gets wind of this, Eduardo’s marriage plans are foiled, and he offers Carlota the option of being his mistress instead. Aware that she cannot hold onto her freedom or ensure the safety of her beloved hybrids in such an arrangement, she refuses him, and Eduardo predictably reveals his true villainous colors, which make the gaunt, grumpy, and extremely average Montgomery seem like a saint in comparison.

Although a chief player in the love triangle, Eduardo comes off as a stock sleazeball character, devoid of any emotional depth. He exists only as a foil to Montgomery, who is haunted by his tragic past (which includes an abusive father who beat him up, a sister who committed suicide, and an ex-wife who never loved him, which is quite a cocktail); Eduardo also serves to emphasize how women of color are doubly colonized on account of their race and gender. Moreover, Gothic romance narratives do an excellent job of highlighting how all men (regardless of race and social capital) profit from abuse and rape culture, as Eduardo’s horrible behavior lowers the standards of decency for all the men around Carlota, painting Montgomery as the “safer” choice.

Indeed, the latter might be the “lesser evil,” but the age difference between him and Carlota is a little hard to ignore, given that Montgomery first encounters her as an adolescent fourteen-year-old. Of course, the romantic tension doesn’t ignite until she conveniently turns twenty and the readers get a physical description of Carlota’s “pretty, but dark” beauty (p. 161, Isidro’s words), especially her “healthily bronzed” skin (p. 59), while Montgomery contemplates that she would have “made the finest courtesan in the city” (p. 59), which further adds to the creepiness.

Nevertheless, the text repeatedly seeks to persuade us that Montgomery is an important character who can be redeemed, devoting entire chapters to his point of view (alternating with Carlota’s). These mostly slow down the story, as the same scenes are simply reenacted with additional insight into Montgomery’s thought process and flashbacks to his traumatic past, and distract us from the important plot details taking place in the background.

But very occasionally, this has a comedic function:

“This house … this life … the trees and the hybrids and oh, even things like this book and my fan,” she [Carlota] said, almost pleadingly. “What would I do without them?”

“Yes, I suppose it would be difficult to purchase fans with ivory handles if Mr. Lizalde stopped paying your bills,” he replied, angrily. He was about to idiotically bare himself to her, and she was thinking about her fan. (p. 149)

Later, when Eduardo politely inquires if Carlota is well, his very voice is “grating” to him:

“There were leeches and vampire bats Montgomery would have liked better.” (p. 160)

Of course, for much of human history, marrying for love was not a privilege that women usually enjoyed. Arranged marriages were (and continue to be) largely business transactions, mutually beneficial to both families, ensuring the proliferation of their wealth and progeny; the woman had to fulfil her role as a reproductive vessel, regardless of romantic sentiment. While Eduardo and Carlota are attracted to each other, even Carlota is aware that the union is primarily for her father’s benefit and on his orders. Watching them, Montgomery is consumed with jealousy and reminders of how his wife had married him for money and later left him when she realized he wasn’t a rich man. Keen to spare Carlota that sort of heartbreak, Montgomery patronizes her and tells her that she is “in love with love … with the mere idea of it” (p. 148), although Carlota still has to learn that lesson the hard way. I eye-rolled when Carlota and Eduardo sneakily made love twice and worried about the dangerous consequences if she became pregnant and Eduardo abandoned her. But much later, in an averted sex scene (which is arguably one of the best moments in the novel), a drunk and heartbroken Carlota comes on to Montgomery—and he at least has the maturity and self-awareness to refuse her advances. He tells her:

“You’ll share yourself with me for the span of an hour and then what? I’m two paces from loving you, two paces from having my heart destroyed,” he said and smirked. “Because you are not going to love me back, and when you leave me, like a ship run aground, you won’t care. It’s not because you’ll be cruel, it’s because it’s the way of the world. So if you want me, you’ll have to say you love me, and make a liar of yourself.” (p. 219)

So, throughout the second half of the novel, I kept anxiously wishing and praying that Carlota would not end up with either man (spoiler alert: she does not!) and I was grateful when Montgomery finally realized that it’s not a good idea to obsess over a younger woman who doesn’t love you back in that way. Romance novels usually style themselves as an escape from the humdrum real world, presenting the thrill-seeking reader with charismatic fictional crushes (who, even if they are “problematic,” are still worthy of a redemption arc). If they are supposed to make one empathize with the protagonist’s dilemma of choosing between two irresistible suitors, then this book succeeded in doing the exact opposite by offering up a sleazeball and a grumpy alcoholic around fourteen years older than the female protagonist as the potential candidates to pique the reader’s imagination.

Thus, despite containing some of the usual tropes of the Gothic, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau has less in common with the author’s deliciously horrifying Mexican Gothic and more closely resembles her novel of manners, The Beautiful Ones. Both books deal with love triangles and unrequited feelings, but The Beautiful Ones, with its focus on aesthetics and appearances, is written in a more polished and affected language, while the narration in The Daughter of Doctor Moreau often feels dry and flat, particularly in Montgomery’s chapters. Nevertheless, I would argue that the latter offers a better resolution of the romantic conflict. While The Beautiful Ones villainizes the older woman for being unable to escape or challenge her patriarchal society, and for using her limited power to oppress the younger woman (thereby continuing the cycle), this novel sets Carlota free from perpetuating any intergenerational trauma by not having her make a choice at all—since Eduardo is out of the picture and Montgomery (gasp!) has the good sense to ultimately take a step back on account of his unreciprocated romantic feelings, which is pretty much all there is to his character arc. (But of course, refusing marriage is liberating only when one has the financial independence and security to do so.)

As the female protagonist of a Gothic novel, Carlota transitions from being a passive character who never questions her father’s orders to an empowered woman who seeks to run a sanatorium for the hybrids without Montgomery’s assistance. But as the heroine, the narrative stipulates that she has to be attractive. So, it isn’t her kindness or generosity that initially catches the eye of the two men who are hopelessly infatuated with her. To the white gaze, her beauty is unconventional and therefore, worth possessing—and Carlota, too, falls in love at first sight with Eduardo’s handsome appearance.

Yet body-positivity discourse that focuses on diversifying patriarchal beauty standards often neglects that, at the end of the day, a premium is still being placed on aspects of a woman’s appearance that are mostly determined by genetic factors outside one’s control. This is naturally outside of the scope of any romance novel, and is only hinted at when another hybrid, Lupe (who has to keep her face hidden on account of her feline features), warns Carlota about wanting a “handsome husband”:

“That’s a silly reason to want a husband. Ask Ramona, she’ll tell you. Her husband was pretty enough, and then he broke her nose with his fist. You can’t tell what anything is by looking at it.” (p. 95)

Despite being like a sister to Carlota, however, Lupe is barely present in the text. From little details, we can gather that she is more concerned with escaping Moreau’s sanatorium as well as the fate of slavery that Lizalde has already planned for the hybrids—and since she cannot wield her beauty as a weapon like Carlota does, she must look for other means of survival. But sadly, all of this happens behind the scenes, since the focus is on Carlota and the two men whose lives revolve around her. Near the end, Lupe plays a very vital role in the story when she comes back to save Carlota; but she feels more like a plot device and less of a character, a missed opportunity for the author to delve into the topical issues which revolve around a figure like her.

Indeed, the main grievance I have against the text is that the hybrids—the products of the illegal experiments of Doctor Moreau in both H.G. Well’s and Garcia’s works—are hardly ever in the limelight. Although they are given names and are the chief topics of dinner table conversation among the white people, they function as props throughout, lacking in emotional complexity. Instead of alternating between Carlota and Montgomery’s points of view, the book could have eschewed the romantic trappings and gotten rid of Montgomery’s chapters, and instead presented us with the perspectives of Lupe and the other hybrids and their involvement in the Mexican nationalist struggle, or made Lupe a main character of the book since she is technically also a “daughter” of Doctor Moreau. The big (albeit predictable) twist in the end (that Carlota is also a hybrid and can transform into a jaguar) offers the main character a well-deserved, cinematic moment of glory and gets rid of Eduardo, but it does little to emancipate the other hybrids. The entire romantic plotline prevents the author from exploring the anti-colonial struggle to such an extent that, when the servant Ramona is revealed to be sending supplies to the rebel leader Juan Cumux’s men, both Carlota and Montgomery are surprised. I found it rather unintentionally funny that the main characters had no idea about the crucial plot developments happening right under their very noses.

In many ways, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau feels more like a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest than the H. G. Wells novel. Much like the magician Prospero, Doctor Moreau has fled his homeland and arrogates the power of God to keep the hybrids, including his daughter, in control. When Carlota comes of age, he intends to set her up with the wealthy Eduardo for his own benefit. Like the innocent Miranda, who had never met a human male before she sets her eyes on Ferdinand, Carlota too has little experience with navigating her sexuality and relationships with men (aside for her six-year friendship with Montgomery), while the hidden hybrids await the fate of the exploited Caliban. Over the years, The Tempest has been endlessly scrutinized by postcolonial scholars, and although The Daughter of Doctor Moreau engages with very similar themes about how cycles of power are perpetuated—and documents the Mexican rebellions against colonial rule—it does so only superficially (especially when so much happens off-screen).

Even though Carlota is also a hybrid, her journey isn’t similar to the other creatures, who have more animal-like features than human and remain hidden in the sanatorium for the majority of the narrative. Their quest for selfhood and recognition against the very Hegelian master-slave dialectic that they share with Doctor Moreau and Lizalde is never adequately addressed. Created by white people using the “gemmules” of native animals, their position in Mexican society and the ongoing political power play is dubious and interstitial at best.

The anthropomorphic creatures, as well as their predicament, reminded me of Sweet Tooth (2021-), a Netflix fantasy series based on the comic book series by Jeff Lemire. The series is set in a modern-day postpandemic society that deals with the sudden appearance of human-animal hybrids, the varied (if not mostly violent) reactions to them, and how that impacts our understanding of community formation. Whether the hybrids can assimilate with the Maya rebels, the other workers, and the white property owners, or whether they are better off in an island off their own—these questions raise complex questions of identity, family, and community that are never answered or explored in the text. Towards the end, Carlota’s decision to open a sanctuary for the hybrids is all well and good—a happy ending that is convenient and panders to liberal sensibilities. But it is not convincing. Excluding Carlota—who is somewhat privileged, able-bodied, and has had a far more conventional upbringing than the others—the hybrids of Doctor Moreau do not really have much of a voice. Thus, most of the novel’s elements—including the lavish beauty of the Yucatán peninsula as well as the political upheaval—take a backseat in the romance-heavy narrative, even though the story already fails as a satisfactory romance novel.

Overall, then, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel is a mixed bag. It starts off slow and relies heavily on a romantic plot to keep the reader entertained and engrossed (to varying degrees of success), only to eschew a sentimental happily-ever-after in favor of a feel-good feminist ending in which Carlota reclaims her agency and ensures the protection of the hybrids—while glossing over the struggles she will almost certainly face in building this promised safe haven for the creatures. The book certainly has its good bits and a few comedic moments. But as a whole, this mashup of historical drama and science fiction is perhaps closer to one of Doctor Moreau’s failed scientific experiments—a chimerical work that arrests the reader’s attention but fails to captivate it. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau can perhaps make for some comfort reading, although it is definitely not Garcia’s best work; but I’m still curious to see what she does next.

Archita Mittra is a writer and artist with a love for all things vintage, whimsical, and darkly fantastical. She occasionally reads tarot cards, has more hobbies than she can count, and loves blueberry milkshakes. She lives in Kolkata (India) with her family and rabbits. You can check out her blog here and say hi on Twitter/Instagram.
Current Issue
13 May 2024

This variation on the elixir of life pairs the flavour of roasted roc with the medicinal potency of the philosopher’s stone. But buyer beware: this dish isn’t for everyone.
mourn and lament while mixing, then cut down a tree
At the end of every tunnel, there was an epithelium of silence that deluged the larynx.
Issue 6 May 2024
Issue 29 Apr 2024
Issue 15 Apr 2024
By: Ana Hurtado
Art by: delila
Issue 8 Apr 2024
Issue 1 Apr 2024
Issue 25 Mar 2024
By: Sammy Lê
Art by: Kim Hu
Issue 18 Mar 2024
Strange Horizons
Issue 11 Mar 2024
Issue 4 Mar 2024
Issue 26 Feb 2024
Load More