1321 The fantasies of El Elvis & Maite
Velvet Was the Night
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada (Del Ray Books), 2021
$37.00 / 9780593356821
Reviewed by Myshara Herbert-McMyn
One of the reasons humans are drawn to fiction is because we want desperately to know what it’s like to live a life that isn’t our own. We live vicariously through the characters of our favourite television shows, and we get sucked into the lives of others in reality television. Books provide the same comfort, providing stories of far away places and prompting dreams of exciting adventures.
In Velvet Was the Night, her seventh novel since 2015, Vancouver writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia has recreated a complex world out of the political climate of Mexico City in the 1970s. I knew nothing of this time and place before reading the book, and I found I was only at a slight disadvantage. The first couple of chapters are dense and contain a lot of information, but they provide the background necessary to appreciate the tension as the story continues. Once I got past those chapters and met the main characters, El Elvis and Maite, the real intrigue began.
Maite is a single 30-year-old woman whose life revolves around her secretarial work and her obsession with a series of graphic romance novels. She sees her relationship status and her job as negatives in her life. Instead of moving on to other work and relationships, she’s preoccupied with Secret Romance, a graphic novel about the excitement and drama of love. She fantasizes about the characters in the book and becomes so invested in their lives that the highlight of her week is reading the newest issue of this novel. During her various adventures, she imagines herself and the people around her as characters from Secret Romance, hoping that her life and relationships take on aspects of the story and the love lives it contains.
Meanwhile, El Elvis is a member of a gang known as the Hawks. He yearns for the lifestyle of his boss, El Mago. He dreams of the car, the house, the clothes, and everything El Mago has. In the same way that Maite dreams about the characters from her graphic novels, Elvis places himself into the character he’s constructed on his boss’s image. Sometimes he uses it as a dream for the future; other times it’s to escape from his current circumstances, but his fantasy always provides the same happiness.
Maite and El Elvis are inextricably tied together through a set of photographs that neither of them has ever seen. As the plot twists and winds through them and around the city, it becomes increasingly apparent how desperately these photos need to be found. El Elvis tails Maite for most of the novel, trying to find where she’s hiding the pictures, while Maite travels around trying to find them herself. Their pursuit makes for a fast-paced story that rarely pauses for breath. I was intrigued all the way to the conclusion, and though I was able to guess one of the big reveals, it did not detract from my enjoyment of the book.
The events of the novel carry a high degree of tension because most of the characters are threatened or attacked in some way throughout the story. Death and violence are familiar in their world, and they are equally on the giving or receiving ends of violence. I must not reveal too much, but I found the climax realistic; it didn’t go over the top and suited well the rise in tension from the rest of the novel.
The denouement — the cool-down after the climax — was a bit of a letdown. I wanted something more satisfying. However, books based on historical events tend to end differently than regular fictional novels. I assume that the series of events portrayed in Velvet Was the Night really happened, and that the people involved never got closure. Finding themselves both changed and unable to go backwards, Maite and Elvis must figure out how to move forward in time — and past the book’s conclusion.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s noir historical fiction will be a great read for anyone who enjoys thrillers or mysteries. It will intrigue historical fiction lovers and pull them into a different place and time than most works in the genre. I generally read fantasy and science fiction, though I have a soft spot in my heart for most sub-genres of fiction. I’m attracted to the great characters and complex plots that exist in fantasy and science fiction — and Velvet Was the Night delivered both of these within its own genre.
Velvet Was the Night is a remarkable and educational novel about the culture and political climate of Mexico City in the 1970s. Its informative tone will help readers (like myself) who are unfamiliar with the setting to follow and become invested in the story. Moreno-Garcia has crafted a detailed and knowledgeable account of El Elvis and Maite, tying them together through their very human needs for dreams and escapism. These characters and eccentricities will remain with me; they will prod at my mind and make me question and broaden my own taste in fiction.
Myshara Herbert-McMyn is a book reviewer and aspiring writer living in the Okanagan. She runs the blog Lit&Leta. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing from Thompson Rivers University. Editor’s note: Myshara Herbert-McMyn has also reviewed books by S.M. Freedman, Sofi Papamarko, John O’Neill, Christina Myers, Paul Bae, and Ruth Daniell for The Ormsby Review. Previously, with her TRU mentor Ginny Ratsoy, she reviewed books by Roo Phelps and Tim Conley. Myshara lives in Kelowna.
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