Last year I read and loved Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream – a strange, mundane and incredibly eerie novella exploring motherhood and identity. While I didn’t review it, I did describe it on Instagram as bat-shit crazy, in a good way, and I think that’s as succinct a review as you can get!
I was very keen then to read Mouthful Of Birds, her new short story collection, and was delighted to get my hands on it courtesy of Netgalley.
Again Schweblin, expertly translated by Megan McDowell, is in odd territory. In this collection of 22 stories, reality and perception slips from the grasp as what is recognisable becomes, with a turn of phrase, or a shift of perception, nightmarish.
The collection opens on a strong note with Headlights, where a bride realises she has been abandoned on the side of the road by her new husband for taking too long at a petrol station toilet. She soon realises that she is not the only one, and won’t be the last as a field full of vengeful, jilted brides loom up out of the darkness to take their revenge. Meanwhile in The Heavy Suitcase, a man’s attempts to own up to the murder of his wife lead him to be inexplicably hailed as a modern art phenomenon in a story reminiscent of Tales of the Unexpected.
“I killed her.” The message takes time to sink in. Once the audience processes the words and understands their meaning, they start slowly to applaud, moved. Euphoria breaks out. He says he killed her, they say to one another. Now that is intense they comment. Pure poetry.
The collection is strong when exploring the relationship between parents and children. In the hallucinatory Preserves, a couple who feel unprepared for parenthood, reverse a pregnancy while preserving their daughter for a time when they feel ready. The title story is a complex, unexpected look at family dynamics as a divorced mother and father come to terms with the fact that their thirteen-year old daughter can only thrive by eating live birds.
I thought about how, considering there are people who eat people, eating live birds wasn’t so bad. Also, from a natural point of view it was healthier than drugs, and from a social one, it was easier to hide that a pregnancy at thirteen. But I’m pretty sure that until I reached for the car-door handle I went on thinking, She eats birds, she eats birds, she eats birds, on and on.
In Underground, all the children in a town begin to dig a hole together to the delight of their parents – though that delight will soon turn to horror. These stories successfully ask questions about what it means to be a good parent and how far we will go to nourish and protect our offspring.
Anxiety over life changes is also trenchantly explored. In one of the collection’s more successful stories Toward Happy Civilisation, an office worker without the correct change for a train finds himself held captive in the countryside by the station master and his wife. When escape finally comes, it appears that it might not have been what he wanted after all. In The Size of Things, a traumatised man finds succour volunteering in a local toy shop, turning the business around until he eventually physically becomes a child again.
Time and again we are presented with seemingly understandable scenarios that slowly become darker and more complex. In Digger, a man rents a holiday home only to find a strange man digging a giant hole in the driveway, while in Irman, a pit stop at a roadside café ends in death and robbery.
Although most of the stories here explore the boundary between what is strange and what is familiar through eerie plot twists and dark humour, the collection as a whole didn’t really work for me. Nearly all are written in a very similar impassive style and lack a depth of character, which may be a stylistic choice but left me wanting more. All characters approach the bizarre circumstances they find themselves in with a sense of apathy and acceptance that robs many of the stories of drama or effectiveness.
Some seem to be odd just for the sake of it, such as The Merman, featuring – yes, a flirtatious merman, or Slowing Down which charts the uninspiring death of a human cannonball and the similarity of mood and technique throughout the collection dilutes a lot of its power.
There are some real stand out stories here, but there are a lot, and many become indistinguishable from each other due to the lack of definition or individual style. It’s a shame, because when they work, the stories are eerie and unsettling, but when they don’t, they are forgettable.
Megan McDowell has however, done an excellent job with the translation and has a clear understanding of the underlying tone of menace that runs through the collection.
Although not a novel, I read this as part of my Novels in Translation 2018 challenge (for which I have gone COMPLETELY off list!) and received a copy from Netgalley in return for an honest review.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!