BY MATT ELLIS
In a genre stuffed to the gills with hard-boiled gumshoes and gangsters, serial killers and behavioral shrinks, narcos and narcs, Silvia Moreno-Garcia has cast aside her acclaimed fantasy bona fides to challenge reader expectations by delivering a crime thriller with literary undercurrents.
Untamed Shore is a coming of age story about an eighteen-year-old underemployed guide named Viridiana, who has managed to learn several foreign languages but is uncapable of escaping her isolated Baja California fishing village of Desengaño, a town literally called disillusionment. Rudderless, she feels the growing pressure to follow the Desengañera –tradition—marry young and become the subservient wife.
Looking at him Viridiana had read her future in his eyes: the house they would share with his mother, the long hours behind the counter while Manuel went to play dominoes, the three children. She was saving to move to Mexico City and Manuel was talking of tying the knot and settling down. Worst of all, Viridiana was well aware that he was proposing because his mother wanted him to – and he was plain horny.
Viridiana’s dreams are dying like her town, a place where fishermen hunt ocean predators out of habit, the promise of prosperity having abandoned Desengaño long ago. “Viridiana thought Manuel represented more desire than affection, and knew enough about nets and sharks to picture herself tangled in a certain placid mediocrity which terrified her.”
At the end of the seventies, in a place that might as well be the end of the earth, Viridiana relies on silver screen classics as her sole vehicle to see what life holds beyond the desert and the waves.
. . . Viridiana spent a lot of time reading a myriad of books, yes, and the books promised more, as did the films. Rita Hayworth kissed Glenn Ford. Montgomery Clift embraced Elizabeth Taylor. I can see you. I can hold you next to me, they declaimed in glorious black and white.
Viridiana sees a glimmer of hope when three Americans rent the lone manor at the ocean cliff’s edge, their secrets in tow. She is hired as a live-in assistant to Ambrose, a wealthy man with aspirations of writing his life story in the peaceful isolation of Desengaño. She is quickly swept away by Ambrose’s glamorous wife Daisy and his brother-in-law Gregory—“If the woman looked like she could be a film star, he looked like he might be a model. His features were chiseled, his mouth generous.”
She daydreams of having a life like Daisy’s and the love of a man like Gregory. When Gregory seduces Viridiana, she releases herself to his promises of what they could be and where they could go, hoping it isn’t just afterglow.
As time passes, Viridiana sees blemishes in the glossy veneer of the foreign couple’s marital bliss. “She guessed it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, a local or a foreigner, there were always men wanting to be all-important, making their wives or girlfriend feel like dirt, slapping them around when they got too mouthy.” As more warning signs threaten her fantasy, Viridiana grapples to assuage her fears—“Virdiana told herself that if a man was ever disparaging to her, she would not forget. She wouldn’t sweep it away. She’d hold it in her heart and notch down his cruelties. She’d bite. Hard.”
When Ambrose dies under suspicious circumstances, Daisy and Gregory ask Viridiana to bend the truth. To keep her fading dreams alive, she takes the bait and ties her fate to theirs. The consequences of her simple lie escalate as more strangers arrive.
Like Martin Solares and other Latinx authors who’ve based their stories in the states around the Gulf of California, Moreno brings an authenticity to the cultural pressures and sociological impact of a small Mexican desert town that has outlived its economic usefulness. The eyes of Desengaño are on Viridiana as she struggles to free herself from her misplaced trust and still escape the life she never wanted.
Moreno makes excellent use of the harsh coastal desert and a time devoid of technological conveniences to amplify a sense of desperation and confinement. In an environment full of natural predators, the most dangerous are the foreign interlopers.
Several times she’d compared them to sharks, but thinking it better, she decided scorpions were the better animal. Scorpions killed a lot more people than anything else in Baja California, lots more people than snakes and black widows. They’d sneak up on you, sneak into your camping tent or your bed roll, your shoes, and that would be the end of it. … Sharks were clean killers. Scorpions were not. Scorpions were secretive little monsters.
In her crime thriller debut, Moreno has taken calculated risks in delivering a literary leaning story with a slow crescendo in a genre crowded by over-the-top chases and traumatic brutality. This is a story where social issues and the environment play an important role in the plot, placing Moreno’s novel in an esteemed class with the likes of American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson and Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne.
Though there were points where the ties that entangle Viridiana to the central crisis seemed to stretch thin to the point of her peril being avoidable, I was compelled to follow the journey to completion to see how she emerged on the other side. Nonetheless, she delivers a compelling character-based novel packed with distressing realism. At the end of it all, I feel the riptide of Moreno’s Untamed Shore pulling me toward her other work, and I’m swimming off to devour her whole fantasy catalog.
Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer currently working as an intelligence and security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he has served as a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence special agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He was the story developer and staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media, and his short fiction has been published at Thought Catalog. He holds an MS in Information Security from the University of Maryland Global Campus and is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at www.letswriting.com.