Ian Mond Reviews This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno

This Thing Between Us, Gus Moreno (MCD x FSG Originals 978-0-37453-923-8, $17.00, 272pp, tp) October 2021.


I’ve never owned an Amazon Alexa. I do have a Google Nest sitting beside the TV, but other than my daughter asking the device to play songs from The Greatest Showman soundtrack, the family rarely engages with it. I am, however, aware that both the Alexa and the Nest are always listening, always recording, and, in the case of the Alexa, sometimes purchasing products for their unsus­pecting owners. This is what happens to married couple Thiago and Vera in Gus Moreno’s debut, This Thing Between Us. Their Alexa… sorry, Itza, sends them a “floppy” pink dildo in the mail. “We both just stared at it wiggle in your [Vera’s] hand,” Thiago says, “before it settled into a lazy lean over your wrist. ”It’s an amusing scene that includes the cracking line: “The dildo was already feeling like that one drunk friend who wasn’t getting the hint to just go home.” But like much of Moreno’s disquieting novel, it’s a moment underlined by grief, death, and something altogether more sinister.

This Thing Between Us, told from the per­spective of Thiago Alvarez, begins with the burial of Thiago’s wife, Vera. Her tragic death – the cause of which is not made immediately apparent – has completely upended his life. In working through his grief, Thiago recalls the first time he and Vera met (Thiago was matched to a job she put on the freelance labour app TaskRabbit), his mother-in-law’s disdain toward him (“to your mum… I was a burnout, someone going nowhere’’), and how together they bought and moved into a condo in Pilsen. It’s regarding the latter where Thiago and Vera’s life takes a turn for the weird. It begins with the cold spots around the condo (“like a polar vortex had found its way inside’’), then creaking floorboards, bang­ing and scratching inside the walls, and finally end with Itza purchasing not only a pink dildo but also a book with the title How to Contact the Dead. When it becomes too much, they contact the real estate agent who – after much cajoling – reveals the last tenant performed a ritual involving an animal carcass in retaliation for being evicted. Shortly after this revelation, Vera falls down a flight of stairs while rushing to work, knocked over by a young man who had just stolen a commuter’s iPhone. Her senseless death compels Thiago to leave Chicago and travel to the boondocks of Colorado where he can mourn in silence. But something nasty and ancient has followed him into the wilderness, an entity that feeds on Thiago’s guilt and anguish.

As I’ve remarked previously (as recently as last month), I’m not keen on stories where the typically violent death of a female character is the trigger for the male protagonist’s emotional journey. Given the first time we meet Thiago he is burying Vera (who has died in horrible circumstances), it seems like Moreno is div­ing headfirst into this tired old cliché. He isn’t. Thiago’s “emotional journey” does not begin with Vera’s death. Rather, her horrible accident accentuates the identity issues he was already facing. Thiago tells us that, for the first decade of his life, he wasn’t aware of the Mexican side of his family, not until his estranged father came back to live with Thiago and his mother when the boy was eleven. As such, he has never truly felt Mexican, a point reinforced by family and strangers throughout his life:

When I was eleven and told my dad the food was too spicy, and he looked at me disgusted and said, “What kind of Mexican are you?” When a kid at school heard me stumble through Spanish: “You ain’t Mexican.” The thing everyone held over me.

Thiago’s inner conflict reaches a tipping point with Vera’s death. With the novel taking place in 2016, the news that the young man, Esteban Lo­pez, who pushed Vera off her feet is an immigrant becomes a rallying cry for a certain right-wing populist (no, he’s not named). And while Thiago would most definitely strangle Lopez if he could, he can’t stomach the fact that his wife has become a poster girl for white nationalists. It’s this level of emotional complexity, raw and candid in its evocation, that ensures This Thing Between Us is not beholden to any trope or cliché.

In the acknowledgments, Moreno talks about trying to get to the same level as Stephen Graham Jones. While very different in terms of plot and tone, This Thing Between Us did remind me of The Only Good Indians. Both books take a similar visceral and passionate approach to race and identity while also being truly heart-stopping pieces of fiction. And akin to Jones, Moreno’s novel is genuinely terrifying, not only because of the horrific and violent events that transpire (the last third of the book is a brilliant mix of the surreal and nightmarish) but because Moreno has put the work in fashioning a believable main character whom we can’t help but empathise with. This Thing Between Us is a magnificent debut novel from a writer whose career I’ll certainly be following.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the October 2021 issue of Locus.

Locus Magazine, Science Fiction FantasyWhile you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.

©Locus Magazine. Copyrighted material may not be republished without permission of LSFF.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *