The Season of the Witch

Fernanda Melchor, trans. Sophie Hughes, Hurricane Season

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 232pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781913097097

reviewed by Liam Harrison

One day, on her way home from school, Norma, a pregnant 13-year-old who is groomed and sexually abused by her stepfather, discovers in a book of fairy tales where the phrase ‘Sunday seven’ comes from. At home she has often been told that it is a terrible thing. Norma initially thinks the phrase might refer to getting her period: ‘on the toilet she discovered her knickers were stained with blood, a maroon, putrid blood that came out of precisely the same hole Pepe had been poking around in lately. So it had finally happened, she thought, horrified: the fateful Sunday seven that would ruin her life and the lives of her entire family.’

In a ripped copy of Fairy Tales for Children of All Ages, Norma reads about a coven of witches who chant their song into the night, ‘Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three; Thursday and Friday and Saturday, six’. A greedy hunchbacked man attempts to complete their song by shouting ‘SUNDAY SEVEN!’ in hope of some reward, only for the outraged witches to hex him by conjuring another hunch upon his stomach. The man now appears pregnant.

In the village of La Matosa, the setting of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, translated by Sophie Hughes, such hexes and magic do not exist. But on the edge of town, surrounded by cane fields, there is a Witch. She lives alone and helps the women of La Matosa get rid of their Sunday sevens through homemade abortion solutions. After fleeing her family home, Norma eventually seeks out the Witch.

Hurricane Season tells the tale of Norma amidst a cast of characters, whose collective testimonies shed light upon the murder of the Witch. Her corpse is discovered in a canal on the opening page by five boys who see her face ‘seething under a myriad of black snakes, smiling.’ The novel’s chronology alternates between perspectives which outline who the Witch was and why she was murdered. Borne out of a series of gradual confessions, these narratives coalesce to produce a cacophony of voices, shedding light and more often darkness upon what has already unfolded. Beyond the focus on a single instance of femicide, Hurricane Season captures, through its torrential prose and unbroken paragraphs, the sexual terrorism committed by men and the ways in which they terrorise each other.

La Matosa is a fictional village in Veracruz, a part of Mexico that is often ignored as the cultural fixation falls on the metropolis of Mexico City, or the narcos of the US border. Melchor’s subject stems from a series of real-life murders. Originally conceived as an In Cold Blood-style literary investigation, Hurricane Season takes the violence that has devastated Veracruz, and delves into inner lives of its perpetrators. Early in the novel, the men speculate on what they would do to the Witch:

Bullshit she’s a witch, they all agreed, the ugly bint just wants some cock, some smart ass would joke, if the Witch wants to suck me off she can start right here, another would say, clutching his balls, and between wind-ups, the sniggers, the burps, the thumps on the table and the laughter, which was really more like yowling, there wasn’t a thug among them who didn’t sit there thinking that with all her land and all her money supposedly stashed away in chests, the sacks of gold coins, the riches, that Witch from the cane fields could well afford the luxury of paying them for what they gave away free to the girls in town, or to the odd lost sheep asking for it, right?

The imagery and language of witchcraft operates less as a means of creating a supernatural aura, or turning La Matosa into a kind of Macondo, than as a correlative for the mythologizing forces that justify so much violence. The Witch, whose gender and sexuality change depending upon who is speaking about her, becomes the focal point of the town’s psychological urges and repressions. She represents both the salvation and cause of all their problems.

The Witch appears to be a trans woman who hosts huge orgies and acts as La Matosa’s illicit apothecary. But to these men she is the devil. At least the village tell the tale of how the Witch’s mother (also known as the Witch) and the devil fornicated to produce this offspring. The mythology conceals that the young Witch is conceived by an attack on her mother when she is sexually assaulted by several men. Hurricane Season unsparingly portrays these horrific acts of violence while containing an imploring and implicit protest against them.

There is a temptation to compare Hurricane Season to the forensic mapping of Capote’s In Cold Blood or the relentless bloodbath of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. However, there’s something more subversive in Melchor’s rendition of male violence, something that decentres it through the silent reverence towards victims who are otherwise too quickly glossed over in masculine epics. The Witch does not have a voice in the novel — not because she is brushed aside by fantasies of male violence, but because she is cocooned in the midst of it, haunting the language that swirls around her.

Melchor delves into the marrow of machismo and the everyday aggressions it sanctions — from catcalls to sexual abuse — while also emphasising how it operates as a form of imprisonment. Homosexual impulses are rampant yet repressed or justified through contorted logic — pretending you’re with a woman, or getting a few beers: ‘Man, don’t tell me you’ve never been sucked off by a fag, [. . .] they give you the head of your life and then pay you for the pleasure and buy you as many drinks as you like after.’

The homophobia, misogyny, and poverty create the stormy conditions of oppressive claustrophobia, as the mood always anticipates the crack of violence that will perforate the tension. At the bookends of the narrative the heavens finally open and the hurricane is unleashed:

day after day rumbling storm clouds pumped the sky with water, inundating the fields and rotting everything, drowning the animals that, blindsided by the gale and the thunder, couldn’t escape their pens in time; drowning even some children, the ones no one scooped up quickly enough when the hillside broke away and came crashing down in a tumult of rocks and uprooted oak trees and a black sludge that swamped everything in its path, eventually spilling out onto the coast, but only after having converted two thirds of the town into a graveyard before the tearful, bloodshot eyes of those who’d survived.

The novel opens with an epigram from W.B. Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916,’ ‘A terrible beauty is born.’ Melchor excavates this perverse irony — the ‘beauty’ found by those who terrorise and how they reach these forms of beauty. The novel is written in a flowing, serpentine prose that’s disturbingly compelling in spite of the distressing content. We as readers become desensitised and complicit, or brought so close to the violence that it no longer seems shocking, only to reach a jolting passage of bestiality or paedophilia that before long is quickly assimilated into Melchor’s form of dissonant lyricism. In Zadie Smith’s phrase, this is literature that ‘retains the wound.’ Hurricane Season’s breathless style creates a searing protest against its own narratives, drawing on the ‘bitter, hellacious force’ of its title to amplify and condemn a series of beautifully rendered terrors.
Liam Harrison is a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham researching late styles and modernist legacies in 21st-century literature.