When Mexican author Fernanda Melchor was thinking about her new novel, Paradais (New Directions, Apr.), she knew she wanted it to be “short and precise, propulsive, like an arrow shot from a bow.” The image, she tells me, was inspired by the opening of the David Lynch film Lost Highway—the lights of a car on a dark road.
Melchor’s first book to be translated into English, Hurricane Season, published by New Directions in 2020, was a surprise success. The novel of a transsexual murder in Veracruz, Mexico, was shortlisted for the International Booker, longlisted for the National Book Award, and sold in 34 territories.
With Paradais, Melchor has written a provocative and terrifying novel centering on two teenagers in an upscale housing development in Mexico who conspire to commit a heinous crime. Polo is trapped by poverty and his controlling mother in a village subsumed by narcotics. He works as a gardener in the Paradais gated community, resentfully cleaning up after the wealthy residents while dreaming of escape. Franco, or fatboy as Polo refers to him, lives in the complex with his wealthy grandparents. Emotionally isolated and addicted to porn, he fantasizes about sex with his neighbor, the attractive married Señora Marián. Franco repulses Polo, but they bond over the alcohol and cigarettes that Franco provides. Early on, Polo believes Franco’s morbid obsession with Señora Marián is all just braggadocio, but he underestimates the depth of Franco’s perversion.
Melchor’s prose is vulgar, feverish, fierce: “In the beginning he thought it was just talk,” she writes. “More of Franco Andrade’s fucked-up fantasies, more shit spewing from that lecherous twat’s mouth because he didn’t have the slightest clue what he was talking about. It was so obvious the prick had never been with a woman, had never put his flaccid little dick anywhere near a pussy, which is why he was so obsessed with boning the one bitch who’d smile and talk to him without winching at the sight of his love handles and repugnant teenage spots.”
Melchor says Paradais and Hurricane Season “both come from the same preoccupation: violence and crime, what makes masculinity, and the relationship between men and women,” which she calls “an eternal battle.” She explains that the Witch of Hurricane and the Bloody Countess of Paradais are metaphors for “strong willful women who scare men.” She says, “Misogyny is based in fear—a primitive fear that touches deeply. Men are wildly attracted to women, but also scared. I wanted to play with this ambivalence.”
From the start, Melchor did not want to write another Hurricane. “I did not want to only equate violence with misery,” she says. “I wanted to see it from another way, evil from what in Mexico is considered middle or upper class. The people inside the luxury development don’t relate to the community around them. They think that security cameras, guards, dogs, and walls can protect them, but you can’t keep violence out.”
Melchor was born in Veracruz in 1982 (she now lives in Berlin) and studied journalism, not literature, at Universidad Veracruzana. She saw reading and writing as freedom, as a means of self-expression. “I didn’t want it as work,” she says. “I needed the liberty of it.” She adds that in her family, “writing did not seem a possible way of making a living. Journalism seemed sensible. It was related to language, and also I saw journalism as a kind of detective work.”
Melchor was always interested in true crime and accounts of violence but never worked as a reporter. Instead, she wrote crónicas—articles of narrative nonfiction that use literary tools to express what’s happening. They are popular in Latin America “because of the complexity of events there,” she says. “Crónicas are different from news, which has an urgency.”
It was her 2013 book of crónicas, Aquí no es Miami, a series of stories set in and around Veracruz, that Michael Gaeb, the founder of Michael Gaeb literary agency in Berlin, read at the Guadalajara Book Fair in 2015 on the recommendation of a friend. “And that was when I fell in love with Fernanda,” he says. “She was living in Puebla, Mexico, where my mother’s family lives, and I was visiting them. We met in a bookshop and she talked to me about Hurricane Season, which is also set in Veracruz. I know the area well. It’s a dirty little port, not at all touristic. We decided to work together and she sent me a first draft. There were many drafts. Fernanda is a meticulous writer. She will ruminate on a sentence for a week. She writes prose as though it were poetry.”
Gaeb pitched Hurricane Season at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2017. It sold first to publishers in Germany and France and was steadily taken up by the publishing community. Its reputation built over time, and North American rights were bought by New Directions in a two-book deal in 2018—the same year it sold to Fitzcarraldo in the U.K. “The reception was miraculous and dynamic,” Gaeb says.
Hurricane Season’s success meant a European tour and awards attention. “Good reviews are wonderful,” Melchor says, “but they fill your head and make you doubt yourself. Fortunately, the first draft of Paradais was already written.” Then, when Covid-19 lockdowns hit, she stopped traveling and was able to focus. She finished Paradais in 2020.
New Directions editor Tynan Kogane calls Paradais a “hypnotic, evil little book,” adding, “I love Fernanda’s work. It’s a torrent of prose that washes over you. The characters are despicable, but Fernanda approaches them like a magician. She forces you to have empathy; she forces you to relate.”
As Gaeb says, “Fernanda scrutinizes Mexican society. The two boys represent the social separation typical of any capitalistic country. She has an interesting analysis of Mexican society, of its machismo. The lack of sensitivity is a social indicator.”
For me, Paradais is shocking; bombastic; totally, relentlessly brave; powerful; original. Gaeb’s description says it all: “It’s like a boxer’s punch.”
This article has been updated with further information.