Perspective matters: that’s what I kept thinking while reading The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Whose voice tells the story has a huge impact on the story’s effect. In this retelling of HG Well’s original classic science fiction novel, a change of perspective shows us that “monsters” are much more likely to be arrogant white men of power than animal-human hybrids.
In the original story, the narrator was a man shipwrecked on the island of Doctor Moreau, a man who was horrified to see the doctor’s creations: animals he had attempted to turn into humans. The hybrids in that case were obsessive and easily turned to violence as their animal natures inevitably reasserted themselves. In this case, the Doctor’s house is a peaceful haven in the jungle of the Yucatan for the doctor’s daughter Carlota, who knows no other home. Through her eyes we see the beauty of the natural setting and the easy community of the hybrids she has grown up with and loves like family. The handsome city men, sent by the doctor’s patron Hernando Lizalde, who come knocking one day are, by contrast, strange, alien, frightening, thrilling, and soon pose a great danger to her peaceful life. Alternating with her voice is that of the man hired to oversee the estate, the alcoholic Montgomery who is all too aware of his failings and is struggling to find a better sense of meaning. Gradually his growing bond with the hybrids and with Carlota drives him to take action for their protection.
Rather than focusing on the concept of human nature as opposed to, or entwined with, “animal savagery” as HG Wells did (which frankly reads now like eugenics and racism), this book meditates on who has power and how they harm others by using it and/or withholding it. One example of this – and of the power of perspective – is Carlota’s romantic storylines. Both Montgomery and the younger Lizalde are attracted to Carlota, and how they handle that (do they give Carlota any voice or power in that situation, do they act on the attraction, what action do they take) is very revealing about their respective characters’ values, motivations, and views on authority.
For myself, I didn’t find it quite as compelling as Mexican Gothic, but I love its improvements on the original source material and how it makes an iconic story accessible for modern audiences. I also think the questions it raises – questions the original raised as well, about the reasonable boundaries of science and innovation – are important ones to think about. If you like thoughtful retellings, chosen family, women’s empowerment, or the lush, entrancing prose of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, you’ll want to try reading this book.