Title: Untamed Shore
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Genre: Noir / Thriller
Publisher: Agora Books
Publication date: February 11 2020
Hardcover: 304 pages
Baja California, 1979. Viridiana spends her days watching the dead sharks piled beside the seashore, as the fishermen pull their nets. There is nothing else to do, nothing else to watch, under the harsh sun. She’s bored. Terribly bored. Yet her head is filled with dreams of Hollywood films, of romance, of a future beyond the drab town where her only option is to marry and have children.
Three wealthy American tourists arrive for the summer, and Viridiana is magnetized. She immediately becomes entwined in the glamorous foreigners’ lives. They offer excitement, and perhaps an escape from the promise of a humdrum future.
When one of them dies, Viridiana lies to protect her friends. Soon enough, someone’s asking questions, and Viridiana has some of her own about the identity of her new acquaintances. Sharks may be dangerous, but there are worse predators nearby, ready to devour a naïve young woman who is quickly being tangled in a web of deceit.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Review copy from publisher
Format (e- or p-): ebook
Viridiana wanted to be in a romance movie, but gets trapped in a noir instead.
It is the 70s in the little town of Desengaño, Baja California, and prospects for young people are few and far in between. Viridiana is a smart, competent 18-year-old who speaks multiple languages and who sometimes works as a tourist guide to the few tourists who show up. She dreams of one day moving away to Mexico City, to get out of this godforsaken town who expects nothing else from her apart from marrying a childhood friend and have children. It doesn’t help that her mother and all the busybodies in town are always on her case, virtue-protecting and future-shaping.
When Viridiana gets a new and different job offer to spend the summer working as a live-in secretary/note-taker for Ambrose, a wealthy American writer, up on a mansion just outside town, she is more than eager to say yes. The money is good and the job represents a change – and who knows, maybe something else may come out of it. She gets immediately taken with her boss’ glamorous and (much) younger wife Daisy as well as Daisy’s dashing 30-year-old brother Gregory. Gregory, who is Montgomery Cliff-gorgeous and who pays a lot of attention to Viridiana, whose dreams of being Hollywood-romanced are finally paying off. Or are they?
Because then Ambrose has an accident and dies. And then there is a little, nearly inconsequential lie that Viridiana tells to the police to protect her friends.
This novel was a masterclass in subverting my expectations.
What’s ingenious here is that for the savvy thriller/noir reader, it is pretty clear what is going on, how Ambrose dies and why, and the truth about Daisy and Gregory. In fact, from the moment Gregory – a thirty-year-old man starts seducing Viridiana, inviting her to perform sexual acts she is not too sure about, we know. What is unclear is how Viridiana will react as the story progresses, and the truths and lies are unveiled. Some of those truths pertain to what she knows and what she has been told. Part and parcel of living in her small town is being told all her life, that her value is directly connected to her virtue, her virginity. Part of the fun and the empowerment in the novel, is how she eventually uses that to save herself.
Like I said in the beginning, Viridiana wanted to be part of a romance movie and to experience a number of things relating to that – love, sex, freedom, travel – above all, the travel bit, the going away, the opportunities. But that dream dissolves pretty quickly and she has to adapt or be carried away by the waves.
More than a noir mystery, this is a little bit of a psychological thriller that focus and centres the main character’s arc and agency. To start with, Viridiana is a heady mix of smart and naïve but little by little her naivety is unpeeled to show something more… raw, untamed even, underneath. Then the ending bites you like a shark that had been swimming toward you in the ocean – not completely unexpected, not entirely surprising, still rather visceral and very bloody.
Rating: 9 – Damn!