As a new Netflix film adaptation of the International Booker Prize-shortlisted Hurricane Season is released, here’s our guide to the book, the author, her influences and accolades
Hurricane Season is the second novel by Mexican author Fernanda Melchor and was her first to be published in English, in 2020, after it was translated by Sophie Hughes. Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize that year, it is a brutal, affecting novel of a society in crisis. Ostensibly a murder mystery, it is also a powerful examination of poverty, misogyny, corruption and machismo culture. A film adaptation, directed by Elisa Miller, launches on Netflix on November 1, 2023.
What is Hurricane Season about?
In the book’s opening scene, a group of boys, out in the midday sun, come across a rotting corpse in an irrigation canal in the village of La Matosa. It is the body of a woman known as the Witch. What follows is a circuitous investigation of the reasons and actions that led to this violent act of femicide, presented from the overlapping perspectives of different characters. Melchor’s long, expletive-laden sentences in free indirect speech provide a vivid impression of each character’s tormented thoughts. Each new chapter circles closer to the central crime with escalating horror. In this small town in the state of Veracruz, hearsay, gossip and superstition shape daily life and Melchor combines mythology with shocking clarity.
Who are the book’s main characters?
There’s Yesenia, a witness to the crime with a grudge against her cousin, the dreamy drifter Luismi, favoured by her grandmother. Thirteen-year-old Norma becomes Luismi’s girlfriend, having escaped sexual abuse by her stepfather. Munra is Luismi’s gruff stepfather whose wife Chabela becomes attached to a cartel leader. Brando is the hate-filled teenager with a religious mother and forbidden longings. None of them can see a way out of La Matosa, referred to as ‘the ass end of nowhere’.
The vacant heart of the novel is the Witch herself who, though seen from different angles, is always shrouded in myth and fear, as distorting as the long black dress and veil she permanently wore. Her mother is the Old Witch who has died during the events of the novel but whose legend shapes the life of her daughter. With the Witch’s father a mystery, she is widely referred to as the daughter of Satan. Nevertheless, she plays a key role in La Matosa, providing medicines and spiritual cleansing ceremonies, abortions to the passing sex workers, and hosting hedonistic parties at night.
There are rumours she might be transgender, an ambiguity that is never resolved, and she is referred to using homophobic slurs as well as both ‘she’ and ‘he’, depending on the situation. In one critical analysis, ‘the queerness of the Witch troubles and brings into focus the destructive and hypocritical machismo of the male characters’.
Who are the author and translator?
Fernanda Melchor was born in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1982, and is a writer and journalist who lives and works in Puebla. She graduated with a degree in journalism from the Universidad Veracruzana in her home state, and has written fiction and non-fiction for several international publications, including the Paris Review, Le Monde and GQ. Her accolades include winning the PEN Mexico Award for Literary and Journalistic Excellence in 2018 and, in 2019, winning the International Literature Award, for the German translation of Temporada de huracanes, her second novel, which was originally published in 2017. Her first two books were published in 2013: Falsa liebre, a novel, and Aquí no es Miami, a collection of literary journalism. The English translation of the latter, This is Not Miami, was longlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature in September 2023. Sophie Hughes’s English translation of Temporada de huracanes, Hurricane Season, was published in 2020.
Sophie Hughes is a literary translator from Spain who was born in Chertsey, UK. Her translation of Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2019. In 2020, her co-translation of Enrique Vila-Matas’ Mac and His Problem was longlisted for the International Booker Prize. In the same year, she was also shortlisted for Hurricane Season. She won the 2021 Queen Sofía Spanish Institute Translation Prize. Hughes also translated Melchor’s fourth book, Paradais, which was longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize and shortlisted for the LA Times Book Prize.
A whole universe is created with the reader both inside and outside the characters; aware of their deepest longings as well as the way they fit into and are shaped by their society.
How ‘real’ is Hurricane Season?
Melchor had the idea for Hurricane Season when she read a report in her local paper about a murder in a nearby town that was said to have been motivated by witchcraft. Intrigued, her initial plan was to follow up the story and write a work of non-fiction in the vein of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. As well as the dangers this task would have involved, Melchor wasn’t convinced that this kind of investigation would result in the insights she was looking for and decided that fiction would provide a better way to question the motivations behind a murder.
Melchor said in a 2020 interview: ‘I really think it’s impossible to establish a direct link between history and literature, or between reality and literature, because the writer’s task is to create something different out of reality, to disguise and betray and divert this political or ideological material and transform it into something else: a fiction, something that is neither true nor false.’
Nevertheless, the novel’s setting of La Matosa is based on a real place and is painted in such rich detail that it has the feeling of reality. One of Hurricane Season’s many achievements is how much it packs in without slowing the pace or distracting from the immediacy of the character-led story. A whole universe is created with the reader both inside and outside the characters; aware of their deepest longings as well as the way they fit into and are shaped by their society.
In her introduction to her 2013 book This is Not Miami, Melchor says that her intention was always ‘to tell a story with the maximum amount of detail and the minimum amount of noise’. Published in its English translation in 2023 (also by Sophie Hughes), This is Not Miami is a collection of relatos which describe real events in a narrative style. Melchor trained as a journalist and brings this experience to her fiction, but notes that even in a news report or work of journalism you are always creating a kind of fiction, due to the treacherous nature of language.
What were Fernanda Melchor’s inspirations?
In a 2019 interview, Melchor said: ‘I didn’t want the book to just be a collection of testimonies; I wanted it to have a kind of unity’. To achieve this unity she deftly manages voice and structure, inspired by Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch.
Melchor has cited a number of other authors that inspired her, including Roberto Bolaño, Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King; growing up she was a fan of horror. The book takes some features from crime fiction and could be read as an unconventional murder mystery. In a 2020 interview with Sophie Hughes, Melchor recounts buying her first books at the age of 12, Perfume and The Silence of the Lambs. She said, ‘I’ve always been obsessed with murder stories, especially those centred in the figure of the offender, the mad, the fallen’. Despite the complexity and upsetting nature of Hurricane Season, Melchor still wanted it ‘to have real depth without compromising readability. I’ve always envied the apparent ease of the most commercial page-turners’.
Her home state of Veracruz is a key inspiration behind all Melchor’s literary work to date, including Hurricane Season. In a 2022 interview she said, ‘Everything good, and everything bad, that has come into Mexico – and the American continent – first arrived in Veracruz. It’s a puerto [port] and a puerta [door].’ The Spanish conquest by Hernán Cortés in the early 16th Century brought large parts of Mexico under the rule of the Kingdom of Castile, along with death and disease to the indigenous population. This moment appears in Hurricane Season’s opening chapter in passing: ‘those filthy Spaniards who, from their boats, took one look at all that land spread before them and said finders keepers, this land belongs to us and to the Kingdom of Castile; and the ancients, the few who were left had to run for the hills and they lost everything, right down to the stones of their temples, which ended up buried in the mountainside in the hurricane of ’78’.
Despite the historical importance of Veracruz (the port city which also gives its name to the state) much well-known Mexican literature focuses on the capital Mexico City and the Northern borders with the US. The popular genre of ‘narcoliteratura’ tends to focus on the cartel kingpins but Melchor prefers to write about how ordinary people are affected by the violence. She said, ‘I found that not talking about narcos and sicarios directly, but of the conditions in which they emerge, or the way their presence is normalized, or how this situation is perceived by people from the southeast of Mexico (generally underrepresented in Mexican literature) could also help illustrate this reality.’
I didn’t want the book to just be a collection of testimonies; I wanted it to have a kind of unity
Why is there so much violence in Hurricane Season?
Hurricane Season is a novel of appalling violence but threaded with tender moments and empathy. The violence is banal and spectacular, domestic and structural. Describing her writing experience Melchor has said, ‘It’s like talking to your dark self, like talking to your shadow… When I finished writing the novel, I had to go and see a therapist.’
Gendered violence, homophobia and misogyny imbue not just the novel’s action but its language. In Sophie Hughes’ masterful translation, the Mexican slang feels natural to English and an effort has been made to convey the misogynist overtones in some Mexican swear words (‘la chingada’ is a key example and this uniquely Mexican word was famously analysed by Octavio Paz in his 1950 book The Labyrinth of Solitude). Hughes has said that despite going back to some graphic scenes multiple times in her translation process she never felt numbed to it; it was always upsetting.
Mexico has some of the worst rates of femicide in the world and it started officially documenting the number of femicide occurrences in 2012, the year Melchor wrote Hurricane Season. She has spoken about her time writing as being a ‘hard time’ in many ways; ‘the violence was over the top, especially femicide, the killing of women. They were discovering new mass graves every week… The only thing I could do was to write – to try to understand and explain the roots of violence.’
Melchor chooses both perpetrators and victims as her central characters and the bravery of her work is how she confronts the most sordid acts in unsentimental prose and still finds tragic humanity. It is a horrifying read – Melchor refuses to turn away from the extremities of human behaviour – and yet the violent lyricism compels the story onward and allows for glimpses of beauty. As Julian Lucas in the New York Times observed, ‘Melchor creates a narrative that not only decries an atrocity but embodies the beauty and vitality it perverts.’
How was the book received?
Hurricane Season has been translated into many languages and was met with enormous critical acclaim around the world. In Germany it won the Anna-Seghers-Preis and the International Literature Award in 2019. In the UK, it was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2020.
In the Observer, Anthony Cummings wrote: ‘Melchor’s long, snaking sentences make the book almost literally unputdownable, shifting our grasp of key events by continually creeping up on them from new angles. A formidable debut.’
In the Guardian, M. John Harrison described Hurricane Season as ‘a mystery novel, but not one presented in any manner to which we’re accustomed; a horror novel, but only metaphorically; and a political novel with deep penetration of a remarkably foul milieu’.
In the TLS, Louis Amis wrote: ‘Hughes elegantly brings out Melchor’s cruel humour, her textured depiction of backland squalor and flashes of hardcore poetry – along with the novel’s primary effect, which is that of a kind of sensory bludgeoning.’
The novel has been adapted for a film, directed by Elisa Miller, the first Mexican female director to win a Short Film Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for her short feature, Ver Llover (Watching It Rain), in 2016. Hurricane Season will be released on Netflix on November 1 2023.