Retold classics are a big business, and many of us are fans. Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, a retelling of David Copperfield, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Women’s Prize this year; and Louisa Hall’s Reproduction, a novel about a pregnant woman writing a novel about Mary Shelley, which also includes a novella about her friend’s Frankenstein-like effort to conceive, has been widely acclaimed.
And with my predilection for retold classics, it was only a matter of time before I picked up Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, a retelling of H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.
In Wells’s disturbing 1896 science fiction novel, set on a remote island, Dr. Moreau is a mad scientist – a later version of Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein. He works to create an improved race of men, infusing animals with human characteristics. When the narrator, Edward Prendick, is shipwrecked on the island, Dr. Moreau and his assistant, Montgomery, reluctantly allow him to stay in a room next to Dr. Moreau’s locked lab. He is horrified by the sound of animals screaming as they undergo vivisection. Montgomery tries to placate Pendrick with feeble lies about the research. But on walks around the island, Pendrick meets Moreau’s hybrids, and wonders who these odd beings can be.
Before me… were three grotesque human figures. as evidently a female. The other two were men. They were naked, save for swathings of scarlet cloth about the middles, and their skins were of a dull pinkish drab color, such as I had seen in no savages before. They had fat, heavy, chinless faces, retreating foreheads, and a scant bristly hair upon their heads. Never before had I seen such bestial-looking creatures
One reason The Island of Dr. Moreau works so well is the presence of Prendick, the outsider. His appalled observations of the cruelty of Dr. Moreau, who rules his hybrids with a whip and threats, are especially vivid because of his shock, disgust and compassion for the hybrids. Vivisection was a big issue in the 19th century: Wells calls his readers’ attention to this horror. Montgomery, the insider, has worked so long with Moreau that he is almost completely insensitive.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s compelling novel, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, is not quite science fiction. I would expect to find it with literary fiction, but I have also seen it in horror and SF. It reads like an unusually well-written Gothic romance, set on a lush, isolated estate in the 19th century in Yucatan, a peninsula in Mexico. Here we have a kinder, gentler Doctor Moreau, whose hybrids are born in pain but are reasonably well-treated afterwards. Although the hybrids are oppressed and in varying degrees of health, they are more human than Wells’s hybrids and live in their own huts. But they long to leave: they stay because they are weak and need medication. But they are not a secret: Doctor Moreau’s daughter, Carlota, grows up with them, and considers Lupe her sister and Cachito a lively companion.
Carlota feels that she lives in Paradise. She has no desire ever to travel. She is curious about the world, but experiences it through books and conversations with Montgomery, her father’s alcoholic assistant. There is no romance between them, though Montgomery is certainly protective. And he is a bit like Heathcliff: brooding and inelegant, but at the same time attractive – especially when he takes off his shirt and swims!
The trouble begins when Doctor Moreau determines to marry off Carlota to his rich landlord Mr. Lizalde’s son. He needs a contract that will ensure he can continue to live on the estate and do his research. Not surprisingly, he considers Carlota his property, though she is a free spirit and a natural feminist.
Carlota is not interested in marriage – she has never known a young man – until she meets Eduardo Lizalde, a dark, handsome man with charm, good manners, and a strong sex drive. Montgomery recognizes Eduardo as a rake, and doubts that Eduardo has any intention of marrying Carlota, but Carlota is enchanted.
Enchantment cannot last. There are too many family secrets. And then there is an uprising of the hybrids.
Moreno-Garcia also has a political agenda: in the Afterword, she reveals that there was an uprising of the native Mayans of Yucatan against the Mexicans and other powerful landowners. This is a fascinating political allegory, as well as a retelling of Wells’s novel. Overall it is brilliant, though the ending is rather like weak tea after several shots of espresso. I do look forward to reading more of Moreno-Garcia’s novels.