Mexico City has a population of almost nine million people and boasts the second highest rate of kidnappings in the world. On the other hand, Blackheath, a sleepy town in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, where author Lucy Neville grew up, has four thousand residents and no issues to date with mass abductions.
Mexico has a huge ratio of police officers to citizens, yet reported levels of corruption are high. Mexican students are surprised when Lucy informs them that this is rare in the Australian police force. Why, they ask, would she come to such a dangerous, poverty-stricken country?
Drawn by the food and culture after spending her gap year in Central America, Lucy decided to follow her heart to Mexico after her arts degree and this is an autobiographical account of her two years as an English teacher in Mexico City. She arrived in the sprawling capital with about 400 dollars in her pocket and a to-do list that included, ‘Learn Spanish’ and ‘Get a job’. It turned out that, as a native English speaker, employment wasn’t hard to come by, despite her constant need to explain that Australians actually don’t speak German. Having accomplished this, Lucy found an apartment and started to build a social circle. It is here that her story really begins.
The tales in Oh Mexico reveal a vibrant and exciting city; a place where wealthy women fly to New York to buy furniture, colleagues share her bed on business trips, and thousands of people worship the saint of death. Life isn’t always easy – Lucy moves apartment twice, eats street food from stalls in the ‘gutter’ almost daily, contracts food poisoning once, witnesses numerous armed robberies and is the butt of many Spanish double entendres. She is sometimes poor while the wages in the school are ‘delayed’, and often feels lonely. All these inconveniences pale into insignificance, however, as we follow what is essentially a well-written, realistic love story, both between Lucy and Mexico as well as with the men she falls for.
Lucy Neville is a natural storyteller and her honesty and wit give the book the same intimacy as a coffee with an old friend. The obvious dilemmas she faces when she falls in love with two men at the same time, for example, illuminate her character, and throughout her story it is impossible not to will her to succeed. She uses snappy dialogue and vivid descriptions of situations and people that it make it easy to empathise with her when her flamboyant family arrives in the middle of her troubles.
The overwhelming impression of Mexico City is one of a multi-dimensional city. At first glance there is the obvious tourist trail of Aztec palaces and the former houses of artistic greats. But on closer inspection, in a place somewhere near where William Burroughs shot his wife or where Frida Kahlo lived with Diego Riviera, there may be a girl rushing to the bathroom to avoid being sighted by the flatmate she has a crush on, or accidentally refusing sex while trying to order tacos. In Neville’s colourful city the possibilities truly seem endless.
Lucy Neville Oh Mexico: love and adventure in Mexico City, Allen & Unwin, 2011, PB, 360pp, $24.99
By day Suzanne Rath is a physiotherapist, by night an avid reader, book club attendee and amateur short story and screenwriter.
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