The Daughter of Doctor Moreau Is a Stirring Rumination on Faith, Family, and HumanityBooks Reviews Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Over the 300-ish pages that comprise The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, Silvia Moreno Garcia breaks your heart just to help you put it back together again. An emotional novel dense with both mystery and the unsettling sense that something is slightly off, Garcia instantly captivates you through vivid imagery and characters that tug at your heartstrings from the book’s first few scenes.
The follow up to 2021’s Velvet Was the Night, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is a loose retelling of the 1896 science fiction novel The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells. The original tells the story of a shipwrecked man who discovers an island inhabited by strange creatures that have been operated on by the enigmatic Doctor Moreau. The Doctor seeks to somehow discover the “extreme limit of plasticity of the living shape” by changing animals into men.
In Moreno Garcia’s colorful retelling, those same experimental elements are in place, however, the novel is now set against the vivid backdrop of the Yucatán Peninsula and the Caste War of Yucatán (when the Maya people rose up against the Mexican, European-descended, and mixed population) which began in 1847. The novel is initially set in 1871 and spans six years, placing the characters at the forefront of the uprising and using it as a decisive plot point that makes Moreno Garcia’s historical fiction even more mesmerizing.
While Moreno Garcia borrows some elements from H.G. Wells’s original novel, she gives us the gift of Carlotta Moreau, the Doctor’s intelligent and alluring daughter who assists him with his experiments. A stunning character in her own right, Carlotta is faced throughout the book with existential and moral questions that make her ponder her faith, the way people frequently “play god” with others, and what exactly family means.
Moreno Garcia’s ability to write characters in a way that makes you instantly adore them despite their flaws is also evident in Montgomery Laughton, who comes to the peninsula to serve as the new mayordomo of Yaxaktun, the remote hacienda where the doctor resides along with the hybrids (half human and half animal) that he creates.
The novel bounces back and forth between Carlotta and Montgomery’s points of view as dark secrets unravel and the livelihood of everyone at Yaxaktun is jeopardized by the Lizalde clan, the wealthy patrons that finance Doctor Moreau’s work. As the characters struggle to protect their home and the unconventional family they’ve found, Carlotta wrestles with typical coming-of-age pain, even as it ushers in a series of shattering realizations.
It is through these revelations that each character must grapple with that Moreno Garcia fully ropes you in to the story she’s telling. While the swift action, layers of deceit, bloodshed, and fantastical creatures she concocts are intriguing, what makes The Daughter of Doctor Moreau so enchanting is the fact that it has heart. Of course, the science-fiction elements add a layer of surrealism to the novel that makes it almost impossible to put down, but the raw emotion that Moreno Garcia bestows upon her characters is what truly grabs you.
While there is the struggle between good and evil at the heart of this tale, Moreno Garcia forces both her readers and her characters to confront the question of what happens when the people we love the most are the ones that are caught in the middle. Throughout the novel, she refuses to make things black or white, and just like the hybrid creatures she crafts there are elements of love, greed, deception, devotion, and ambivalence at work within each character.
Despite the fact that the novel is clouded by a certain uneasy energy, it also uses this foreboding tone to its advantage, making the rare glimpses of light seem that much brighter. There’s a sustained tension that escalates throughout the story and lingers even into the final pages. An opaque read, there’s something about the fact that the reader never really knows where Moreno Garcia is going to go next that keeps you completely hooked. It feels as if she pulls one thread and suddenly the precarious life that Carlotta and the inhabitants of Yaxaktun lead completely unravels, unwinding at a speed that leaves you with second-hand whiplash.
By no means a light novel, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau commands your attention at every turn and asks heavy questions about some of the beliefs we hold most dear. With sentimental character arcs and a haunting feel that will have you mulling over the novel for days, Moreno Garcia delivers one of the most evocative books of the summer, if not the year.
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is available now.
Samantha Sullivan is a Paste Music intern and writer based in Philadelphia. She can be reached on Instagram @fangirlpurgatory.