Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest book, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, is a fascinating take on the only H.G. Wells classic novel that has never really gotten its due in popular culture (unlike, say, The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, or The Invisible Man). By taking the basic elements of the original and moving them to the Yucatan peninsula in the late 19th century, she’s created not just a meditation on things science shouldn’t do and the line between humans and animals, but also an examination of class, colonialism and feminism.
Carlota Moreau, one of the two protagonists of the book, has grown up on her father’s isolated estate in the wilds of the Yucatan peninsula. Her father, whom she looks up to practically as a god, is totally dedicated to his scientific research involving the creation of human-animal hybrids. She has no other biological family, but she’s close to Lupe and Cachito, both of whom are hybrids, whom she treats as brother and sister. She has little contact with other human beings, as her father keeps her away from society, on the grounds that she’s been very sick when she was younger and she needs to keep herself calm and unemotional or else the sickness will return.
The plot really starts when Montgomery Laughton, the other protagonist, takes a job as Doctor Moreau’s majordomo. He’s a broken soul, a man struggling with alcoholism and depression, whose life has been pretty much a wreck. He’s shocked at first to meet the hybrids, and he’s entranced by Carlota when he first encounters her, but over time he comes to find the world at the estate to his liking, and to treat the hybrids as normal human beings. His past romantic experiences have made him very wary of beautiful young women like Carlota, and the two of them butt heads (not literally) fairly often, without there being real antagonism between them.
Moreau’s in trouble. Actually, he’s in debt, deeply in debt, to the Lizalde family, who are financing his experiments. He may be focusing on pure science and the ultimate benefit to mankind of the discoveries he’s making, but the Lizaldes want him to create a race of obedient hard-working creatures who won’t give them the kind of trouble the natives do. Hernando Lizalde thinks of the Indians, many of whom are in rebellion against the colonial powers, as little more than animals themselves, to be worked till they drop and hunted down if they try to escape.
Meanwhile, the hybrids are suffering: they weren’t built perfectly, and are in constant pain that supposedly can only be treated by the medicines only Dr. Moreau can give them. They want freedom, especially Lupe, but they’re afraid they won’t survive without the medicine, and of course Moreau doesn’t want to give that away and give up his control over the hybrids.
When Eduardo Lizalde shows up at the estate with his cousin, and falls for Carlota, you just know there’s going to be trouble. Not from Moreau, who hopes that his daughter’s marrying Eduardo will guarantee him funding for his work, but from Montgomery, who doesn’t like young Eduardo and especially doesn’t like his interest in Carlota, and also from Eduardo’s cousin who doesn’t like Carlota’s background and thinks she would be a terrible match for Eduardo. They discover the existence of the hybrids and are horrified by them, though Eduardo comes close to promising to give Carlota the estate if she marries him.
From the outset we know that Carlota isn’t Dr. Moreau’s legitimate daughter. His wife died in childbirth with his first child. She and everyone around her assume that she’s the daughter of some woman who had an affair with Moreau after his wife died, but there’s more going on than Moreau lets on.
The explosive situation, with the hybrids and Moreau’s dependence on Lizalde and the Indian rebellion in the background, does in fact explode, and both Carlota and Montgomery are tested beyond anything they ever expected. The book has a slow, long fuse, but once it ignites, it moves fast and becomes a book you can’t put down. You care about the characters, hybrid and human, and at a certain point you start to wonder if it’s possible for this to end well, or even on a slightly positive note (spoiler alert: it does).
A compelling read, an excellent take on an underrated classic, and the kind of book which would prompt one of our librarians (hi, Sarah) to say, “Good for her!”, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is well worth checking out.