A Review of Gus Moreno’s “This Thing Between Us”
Siri, Recommend Me a Horror Novel
With Halloween just around the corner, Gus Moreno’s debut novel — a supernatural horror thriller — has arrived like a plum pumpkin picked from the patch. This Thing Between Us is, in part, a book that focuses on the prevalence of technology in our everyday lives, as its central feature is a super-smart smart speaker called Itza. The smart speaker starts to control every aspect of its main characters’ lives to the point where the weird truly starts to get weird. But I may be getting ahead of myself. The novel also, refreshingly, features Mexican American main characters, and part of the book is about what makes a Mexican a Mexican, because the book’s protagonist, Thiago, barely knows any Spanish and doesn’t seem all that enthralled about his culture, something that got him picked on when he was a young boy. It’s also a novel about grief, so there’s a lot of depth to this short novel, and there is much to graze upon here. Sadly, I felt This Thing Between Us didn’t really work all that well, despite being particularly atmospheric and well-written. Thiago makes choices that I would have made, but, in the end, there just might be no escape from the things that torment him. Or is there?
Going back to what this book is about, it concerns a married couple named Thiago and Vera who have moved into a condo in the Chicago area. Vera orders a smart speaker that’s particularly sophisticated (named, as mentioned before, Itza), but, soon, the speaker seems to be malfunctioning. It orders a massive dildo for the pair — perhaps saying something about their sex lives in the process — and other strange gifts and packages arrive that the pair didn’t order. What’s more, there’s strange scratching coming from the wall that an exterminator can’t find a cause for. It also turns out that the previous tenant on the spot where Thiago and Vera live carried out a bizarre animal sacrifice ritual, possibly in retaliation for being evicted. In any event, Vera is killed in a subway mishap, and Thiago is left to fend for himself and quickly finds himself on the run from all varieties of horror, including a dead dog that comes back to life.
I liked This Thing Between Us in that it was easy enough to read and it is a quick read. As I noted earlier, the atmosphere is sufficiently spooky, and this is the perfect book to be reading at this time of year. I also appreciated a Mexican American as the main character, as this gives voice to other cultures in fiction other than my own (I’m a white Canadian male). There are plenty of twists and turns and you won’t know where exactly this novel is going or how it will end. And the horror elements feel remarkably original, to boot. When was the last time you read a book about an evil smart speaker, after all? However, that’s about all that I can say about this novel that is charitable, I’m afraid. There are several flaws in this debut, including the fact that — about midway through the read — Thiago is saved by a deus ex machina type of intervention that may have you rolling your eyes. Thiago also figures out what he needs to do to rid himself of the monsters plaguing him about three-quarters of the way through the book, but it takes him a while to actually getting around to doing it. Also, what’s behind the horror is never fully revealed, probably due to Thiago’s lack of knowledge of anything Spanish, including Mexican superstitions. This will frustrate the reader, who may appreciate the haunting but will want to have a reason for it.
The biggest problem with This Thing Between Us, though, is Itza. I’m going to spoil things sort of here, so you may want to come back to this review after reading the book, but she/it gets destroyed by Thiago about a quarter of the way through the novel. What is set up as a kind of horror take on 2001: A Space Odyssey turns out to be a bit of a MacGuffin. While it may have been difficult to keep up a narrative around a defective, haunted smart speaker that could always be returned to the store you’ve bought it from, or destroyed it as Thiago winds up doing, This Thing Between Us has promise that it squanders. Instead of being a treatise on the perils of technology, the novel turns into a haunted cabin-style ghost story as Thiago flees Chicago for Colorado.
In the end, it’s hard for me to pinpoint how I felt about this novel. On one hand, there were elements I enjoyed, but, on the other, I found the book too dour and depressing to be particularly enjoyable. That might seem to be a paradox, but there it is. This Thing Between Us is one puzzle box of a book, as it tries to pull off a multitude of things all at once but doesn’t particularly succeed at many of them. However, some horror buffs may be drawn to the atmosphere and the sense of overall dread, and the Spanish flavour of the book is a delight to read. It’s too bad that Moreno didn’t describe how his main characters looked because the anguish at the hands of Thiago might make you think of a middle-aged white guy going through a personal crisis, which is not the case of this character. (I guess I’m saying it might have been nice to have Thiago look in a mirror now and then and describe what he was seeing.) Everything all boils down to one essential fact: if you’re curious about this book, try checking it out from the library. It’s not awful, but there’s a lot left to be desired here, so you might not want to contribute personal shekels towards this one — opting instead to read it for free. That’s the impression I’m left with when it comes to any sort of recommendation for this read. This Thing Between Us has promise but ultimately doesn’t go anywhere with it towards a resolution that feels successful. Boo!
Gus Moreno’s This Thing Between Us was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux / MCD x FSG Originals on October 21, 2021.
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