Book Review: The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas
I love reading a haunted house novel where the haunted house is actually scary. The title hacienda of Isabel Cañas’ debut novel delivers on that in spades, in this eerie cross between Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House. Even more absorbingly, the story is set amidst the turmoil immediately after Mexico’s War of Independence, as a young woman flees a Cinderella-like existence only to discover greater horrors lying in store for her.
Beatriz Hernández Valenzuela is the only daughter of an executed insurgent general and the criollo woman who was cast out of high society for daring to marry someone so far below her in social status. After General Hernández’ death, Beatriz and her Mamá were forced to live off of the sneering generosity of the only Valenzuela relatives who would receive them. A desperate Beatriz uses her social debut in these new circles to seize the only escape she can find, in the form of her handsome suitor Don Rodolfo Eligio Solórzano:
As beautiful as he was, I had no romantic notions about Rodolfo when I accepted his offer […] My appearance may have convinced him to look past my father’s politics; after all, I was a newcomer to capital society, and I knew I was beautiful. These two truths made me an enticing mystery to conquest-minded men.
But I was also someone who turned a blind eye to the susurration of rumors circling his widowerhood, and Rodolfo wanted a bride who did not ask too many questions. I chose to gamble on his secrets. Our relationship was founded on one thing and one thing only: my world was a dark, windowless room, and he was a door.
As soon as she can, she persuades him to take her to his remote countryside estate, Hacienda San Isidro. While her mother’s disappointment in Beatriz marrying for convenience rather than love has led to a rift between the two women, Beatriz is determined to make her new home a refuge for them both. At first, she believes that all she has to contend with are Rodolfo’s unconventional—and often unfriendly—family and servants, who have let the hacienda fall into a state of near-uninhabited disrepair. But after Rodolfo heads back to the capital to continue managing his political affairs, leaving her to run the household alone, Beatriz discovers that the house itself harbors strong feelings towards her, few of them good.
After too many sleepless nights, terrifying visions and, finally, life-threatening accidents, she turns in desperation to the local church, ostensibly to bless the house but really to perform an exorcism on it. Cold Padre Vicente dismisses her fears as womanly hysteria, but the younger Padre Andrés, who grew up in the area, is inclined to listen. Andrés has his own secrets, having returned from seminary only a handful of years ago to a valley that seemed to be lying in wait for him:
The valley’s awareness of me overtook me in a roar, in a wave, and I trembled beneath my too-big sarape. For years I had buried myself behind thick walls, alone–my secret severed me from the other students at the seminary. Fear of discovery governed my every thought and step; I hid myself so completely I lived a hair’s breadth from suffocation.
Now I was seen.
Andrés, you see, is a witch, and can hear the voices in the house, too. As he and Beatriz join forces to rid the hacienda of its malevolent entities, they find themselves growing closer to one another… as well as closer to the truth of who’s truly behind the haunting, and what really happened to Rodolfo’s first wife.
This was a highly entertaining haunted house mystery that not only highlights an under-represented era and milieu in English literature (and especially in genre fiction) but also sympathetically imparts the tale of two lonely, damaged souls brought together in a fight against the evil that seeks to overwhelm them. I loved too how Ms. Cañas examines the colonial standards that threaten to destroy our protagonists even before the supernatural comes into play. Her handling of that supernatural aspect is deft: I truly felt scared for Beatriz left alone in a house intent on her doom. The Hacienda works equally well as a historical novel and as a supernatural thriller, and will likely be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates either and especially both.