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The Hacienda


The Hacienda

Debut author Isabel Cañas combines the supernatural allure of MEXICAN GOTHIC with the creeping gothic suspense of REBECCA in THE HACIENDA, a haunting and atmospheric thriller set in the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence.

Born to a disowned woman and a general, Beatriz is left with few options in war-torn 1823 Mexico. Her father entered the war an insurgent, fighting on a different side from Agustín de Iturbide, the man who eventually would become emperor, but he ended it working side-by-side with Iturbide to fight for Mexico’s independence. None of that matters, though, when Iturbide is deposed and exiled to Italy, and all of his allies are rounded up and executed. With nowhere left to go, Beatriz and her mother seek refuge in extended family, but Tío Sebastián and his wife are cruel, racist hosts who treat them like servants.

An ambitious beauty pushed to the edge of desperation, Beatriz sees for the first time a glimpse of hope when she spots wealthy bachelor Don Rodolfo Solórzano at a ball. His first wife died under mysterious circumstances, so while Beatriz is a controversial choice for his second wife, he knows that she is also someone who will not ask too many questions and will be grateful enough for his promise of a future to help keep his secrets. Although Rodolfo’s position guarantees him work in the city, Beatriz is eager to visit his pulque-producing family estate in the countryside, Hacienda San Isidro, a place that she finally can call home.

"Cañas supports every theme, every bump in the night and every character’s development with thorough research, beautiful, atmospheric prose, and velvety, sensual descriptions. The result is intoxicating, haunting and almost dreamlike (or perhaps nightmare-like)."

Rodolfo has always spoken highly of his childhood in the Hacienda, yet when Beatriz arrives, she finds not a verdant, luscious estate, but ungainly, beastly buildings, scarce vegetation and rotting flower beds. Far from the freshness one would expect from the countryside, the air is heavy, smothering and stale, and the welcome she receives from the hacienda’s inhabitants isn’t any warmer.

From Rodolfo’s brash and headstrong sister, Juana, to the judgmental housekeeper, Ana Luisa, Beatriz cannot help but wonder if she has entered the lion’s den. Rodolfo did not warn her to expect the women’s disgust, nor did he inform her that his sister lives at the hacienda, albeit in a separate building from the main house. While at first she believes that the women either preferred Rodolfo’s first wife or are not ready to relinquish the control of the hacienda that they have assumed in the absence of a wife, the utter decay of the grounds suggests something else entirely. But what?

When Rodolfo returns to the city, Beatriz sets out to make her mark on the hacienda, beginning first with the flower beds and then by planning to redecorate the main house’s drawing rooms and master suite. But odd occurrences start to shake her confidence in her ownership of the hacienda: a dead rat on the stairs, a strange blinking red light in her bedroom, and voices that whisper to her from shadowy corners. While Juana at first seems like a companion who agrees with her that the house appears to have a personality and spirit of its own, she quickly turns her back on Beatriz, gaslighting her and badmouthing her to the servants, downplaying her visions as bad dreams.

With nowhere else to turn, Beatriz attempts to elicit the help of the church, turning to local hero Padre Andrés, a young priest who is still rising in the ranks of the corrupt church, but who has earned the love and respect of the locals, particularly those with whom he grew up in San Isidro. But he also has a difficult past: mixed parentage, a dark legacy, and his own reasons to fear Rodolfo, the Inquisition and lingering insurgents. As Beatriz and Padre Andrés join forces to identify the spirit haunting the walls of Hacienda San Isidro, their unique, life-defying situation ignites a passion between them that is as forbidden as it is unstoppable. With villains lurking around every corner, and each of their own histories driving them forward, Beatriz and Padre Andrés must banish the malevolent spirit haunting the hacienda forever, or succumb to the trap of San Isidro and die within its walls, just like the prisoners before them.

At first glance, THE HACIENDA seems like a reimagining of REBECCA, but while Cañas may have drawn inspiration from this gothic favorite, what she does here is all her own. From the sinister ghostly presence to the ever-creeping horror and dread (oh yes, there are jump scares), and even the vivid, gorgeously rendered setting, the book draws upon centuries of gothic horror and elevates it with timely and poignant explorations of women’s rights (to live, to be heard and to be believed), racial and classist violence, and the privilege and cruelty of those who profit even during disasters.

Beatriz is a unique and unforgettable gothic heroine: gorgeous and feminine, but inquisitive, bright and ready for a fight. She is someone who has played the system to the best of her ability only to wind up trapped, disbelieved and in grave danger, and she does not take to any of this easily. But even more perfectly written is her fear and creeping realization that the haunting of San Isidro has the power to not only dismantle her emotionally and mentally but strip away her newfound privileges and set her firmly in place among the lower class. Her union with Padre Andrés and her discovery of the true horror hiding with the hacienda force her to reckon with this truth: is it the fall from grace she should have expected, or a reminder that the soul of the people is greater and more powerful than the greed of the elite?

While THE HACIENDA is set firmly in the past, even the most uninformed reader could draw comparisons to many of the issues plaguing America, Mexico and Latin America today, particularly with regard to colonialism and colorism. The inclusion of these and other -isms may seem ambitious, especially for a debut author. But Cañas supports every theme, every bump in the night and every character’s development with thorough research, beautiful, atmospheric prose, and velvety, sensual descriptions. The result is intoxicating, haunting and almost dreamlike (or perhaps nightmare-like). While I recommend you read this book as soon as possible, be sure not to do so too close to bedtime.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on May 13, 2022

The Hacienda
by Isabel Cañas