Last year, the Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream made it to My Top 12 Books of 2017 list. As I pored over the glowing reviews of that novel in the cultural sections of newspapers, I stumbled across another translated book from Argentina, and published in the same year. But it was a short story collection this time, and penned by a writer previously unknown to me.
Not surprisingly, this collection was published by Portobello Books, a rather excellent publisher which introduced me to Han Kang and Andres Barba among others.
Things We Lost in the Fire by Marian Enriquez is a collection of 12 wonderful short stories steeped in Gothic horror. The difference – it’s not set in Victorian London, the birthplace of Gothic fiction, but in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
In most of them, there are many traces of supernatural elements, but there is more to it than that. For the author, these stories are also a medium to display the many evils plaguing Argentina, a country whose democracy is in its infancy having just broken away from the shackles of repressive dictatorships.
The translator, Megan McDowell, gives some perspective on the backdrop against which these stories are set…
Argentina’s twentieth century was scarred by decades of conflict between the leftist guerrillas and state and military forces. The last of many coups took place in 1976, three years after Marian Enriquez was born, and the military dictatorship it installed lasted until 1983. The dictatorship was a period of brutal repression and state terrorism, and thousands of people were murdered or disappeared. Since the dictatorship fell, Argentina has lived its longest period of democracy in recent history.
The collection opens with the story ‘The Dirty Kid.’ In this the narrator is a young woman who chooses to stay alone in her ancestral home in Constitucion, a dangerous neighbourhood rife with poverty and drug junkies. One day, she comes across a homeless woman, and her five year old son. Then, all of a sudden after some days they are gone, and the body of a child surfaces in the neighbourhood. Is it the same dirty kid?
There is a hint of violence that seeps through the story, but equally chilling is the narrator’s casual observation…
I realized, while the dirty kid was licking his sticky fingers, how little I cared about people, how natural these desperate lives seemed to me.
In Enriquez’s stories, violence is a part of everyday, ordinary life and occurs with alarming regularity. Children, in particular are at the centre of many of her stories, either as sufferers or the ones inflicting harm on others.
In one of my favourites ‘Adela’s House’, a group of three children are drawn to a house that is supposedly haunted, expressing extreme eagerness to explore it. But do all of them emerge unscathed?
The idea of going inside the house was my brother’s. He suggested it to me first. I told him he was crazy. And he was, he was obsessed. He needed to know what happened in that house, what was inside. He wanted it with a fervor that was strange to see in an eleven-year old boy. I don’t understand, I could never understand what the house did to him, how it drew him in like that. Because it drew him to it, first. And then he infected Adela.
In ‘An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt’, the protagonist Pablo is a tour operator taking tourists on a popular murder tour of the city. But one day he sees the apparition of one of the most famous murderers on the tour.
But it was impossible for him to be there, where Pablo saw him standing. The Runt had died in 1944 at the Ushuaia penitentiary in Tierra del Fuego, a thousand miles away, down at the end of the world. What could he possibly be doing now, in the spring of 2014, a ghost passenger on a bus touring the scenes of his crimes?
In her novel Fever Dream, Schweblin uses the supernatural as a tool to expose the ground realities in her country such as the harmful effects of agricultural pesticides. In a similar vein, Enriquez’s haunting and unsettling story ‘Under the Black Water’ mixes the eerie with the stark reality of Argentina’s hazardous, industrial waste dumped in a river.
He also explained to her that the Riachuelo’s deep and rotten stench, which with the right wind and the city’s constant humidity could hang in the air for days, was caused by the lack of oxygen in the water. Anoxia, he’d told her. “The organic material consumers the oxygen in the liquid,” he said…
Horror drips off the pages of this collection, and yet it’s not the only factor that punches you in the gut. Argentina has had a troubling past, it is still transitioning into a democracy, and is grappling with all the problems that a typical developing country faces. Poverty, corruption, the sorry plight of children, drug addiction, the haunting spectre of military dictatorships are recurrent themes…these are as frightening as the supernatural twist in every story.
Enriquez’ stories also explore relationships, in particular the weaknesses in men and their inability to understand the women they are in a relationship with.
‘The Neighbour’s Courtyard’ for instance focuses on a young couple; the woman is prone to depression, and how her partner just does not get it.
Paula convinced herself that it had been the stress from the move; she’d read once that moving was the third most stressful life event, after the death of a loved one and being fired. In the past two years she’d gone through all three: her father had died, she’d been fired from her job, and she’d moved. And then there was her idiot of a husband, who thought she could get over it all just by trying.
In a nutshell, this is a strange, macabre and superb short story collection, making Argentina a thriving hotbed of exciting literature. There’s loads to explore!
Although 2017 is long gone and we are well into 2018, I couldn’t resist compiling this list. It’s a great way to summarize what had been an excellent reading year. Besides my Top 12 Books for the Year, this includes many more books that I loved but just missed the Best of the Year list.
So here goes…
A Book with More Than 500 Pages
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura
At around 800 pages, this is a wonderful novel from Japan about family, class distinction and the rise and fall of Japan’s economy. It has also been billed the Japanese ‘Wuthering Heights’ focusing on the intense relationship between the brooding Taro Azuma and the beautiful Yoko. And yet without the Bronte tag, this rich, layered novel stands well on its own feet.
A Forgotten Classic
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
Barbara Pym wrote some excellent novels during her time but probably fell out of fashion later. But she has seen a revival of late in the book blogging world. ‘Excellent Women’ in particular is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster, leads an uneventful life and is quite happy with her circumstances, until a new couple move in as neighbours and wreak havoc.
A Book That Became a Movie
Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
The first book released by the Pushkin vertigo crime imprint, but much earlier it was the inspiration for the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. This is classic crime fiction with enough suspense, good characterization and plot twists.
A Book Published This Year
Compass by Mathias Enard
An erudite, mesmerizing novel about the cultural influence that the East has had on the West. Over the course of a single night, the protagonist reminisces on his experiences in Damascus, Aleppo, Tehran and his unrequited love for the fiery and intelligent scholar Sarah.
A Book with a Number in the Title
Madame Zero by Sarah Hall
I love Sarah hall’s novels for her raw, spiky writing and she is particularly a master of the short story. This is another brilliant collection of stories about metamorphosis, sexuality and motherhood, the standouts being ‘Evie’ and ‘Mrs Fox’.
A Book Written by Someone under Thirty
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Waugh penned this novel in 1930, when he was 27. A humorous, witty novel and a satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ – essentially decadent young London society between the two World Wars.
A Book with Non-Human Characters
Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami
This is a strange, surreal but highly original collection of three stories. From the blurb on Amazon – In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous moneys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.
A Funny Book
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes
The novel’s protagonist is the highly volatile Gloria, now in her middle age, but having lost none of her capacity for rage and outbursts of anger. And yet it is not a gory novel. Infact, it has many moments of humour and compassion; a novel brimming with spunk.
A Book by a Female Author
Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith
There were many this year, but I chose one of my favourite female authors, Patricia Highsmith. Edith’s family is breaking apart and she takes to writing a diary. A heartbreaking novel about a woman’s gradual descent into madness told in very subtle prose.
A Book with a Mystery
Black Money by Ross MacDonald
Ross MacDonald wrote the excellent Lew Archer (private detective) series of novels and this is one of them. A solid mystery with wonderful evocation of California, interesting set of characters, and a tightly woven and compelling plot with enough twists and turns.
A Book with a One-Word Title
Sphinx by Anne Garreta
An ingeniously written love story between a dancer and a disc jockey where the gender of the principle characters is never revealed. An even remarkable feat by the translator for ensuring that the essence of the novel (unimportance of gender) is not lost.
A Book of Short Stories
A Circle in the Fire and Other Stories by Flannery O’ Connor
Remarkable collection of stories by the Queen of Southern American gothic. A dash of menace lurks in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans living in the rural regions of the South. The theme of her macabre stories? The painful, necessary salvation that emerges from catastrophic, life-changing, and sometimes life-ending, events. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Good Country People’ particularly are classics.
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
This is a passionate love story between an eighteen year old drama student and an actor in his thirties written in innovative prose that brings out the intensity of feelings of the young girl. It was the first book I read in 2017; I loved it and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of a wonderful reading year. The novel had also been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
A Book Set on a Different Continent
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
The continent is Europe and the novel is Solar Bones – a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. It is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
A Non-Fiction Book
Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart
This is a fabulous book on the history of the iconic bookshop in Paris – Shakespeare and Company. It is the story about its founder George Whitman, his passion for books and how some of the most famous authors of his time frequented the shop. Budding authors were allowed to stay in the bookshop (they were called ‘Tumbleweeds’), provided in return – they helped around in the shop and wrote a bit about themselves. The book is a wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes, pictures and also displays many of the written autobiographies of those Tumbleweeds.
The First Book by a Favourite Author
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
This isn’t exactly his first book but one of his earlier ones. James Salter has a knack of crafting exquisite sentences and conveying a lot in poetic, pared back prose. ‘Light Years’ still remains my favourite one of his, but this title is also good.
A Book You Heard About Online
Climates by Andre Maurois
Climates is a story of two marriages. The first is between Phillipe Marcenat and the beautiful Odile, and when Odile abandons him, Phillipe marries the devoted Isabelle. It is a superb novel with profound psychological insights, a book I only heard about through one of the reading blogs I regularly frequent.
A Bestselling Book
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Not sure this is a bestselling book, but I can say that it was certainly the most well-known of all that I read last year. I have always balked at the idea of reading a Woolf for fear of her novels being difficult and highbrow. But I decided to take the plunge with the more accessible Mrs Dalloway. And closed the final pages feeling exhilarated. More of Woolf shall be explored – perhaps, To the Lighthouse will be next?
A Book Based on a True Story
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
Penelope Fitzgerald is a wonderful but underrated writer. The Blue Flower is a compelling novel that centres around the unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his young fiancé Sophie. Novalis was the pen name of Georg von Harden berg who was a poet, author and philosopher of Early German Romanticism in the 18th century.
A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
This was the first title published by Peirene Press way back in 2011, and on the strength of some solid reviews, had been meaning to read it for a while, only to find it languishing at the back of some shelf. I finally pulled it out and gulped it in a single sitting. It is quite a dark, bleak but poignant tale of a young mother and her two sons and the extreme step she takes to shield them from a cruel world.
A Book your Friend Loves
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
First Love had received quite some rave reviews last year and was also shortlisted for a couple of prestigious prizes. It is a story of a woman in an abusive marriage told in sharp, intelligent, lucid prose. Here’s the blurb on Amazon – Catastrophically ill-suited for each other, and forever straddling a line between relative calm and explosive confrontation, Neve and her husband, Edwyn, live together in London. As Neve recalls the decisions that brought her to Edwyn, she describes other loves and other debts–from her bullying father and her self-involved mother, to a musician she struggled to forget. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.
A Book that Scares You
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
This is a tense, chilling and utterly gripping book that combines elements of the supernatural with the more real matters of agricultural disasters. The tone of storytelling is feverish and urgent; it filled me with dread as I raced towards the ending.
A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A great novel with psychologically complex characters and a narrative style that forces you to keep shifting sympathies with them. And the opening sentence is a corker – This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
The Second Book in a Series
Transit by Rachel Cusk
The first was Outline, which I read at the start of the year. So impressed was I that I read the second in the trilogy – Transit – the same year too. The third one is yet to be published. In both the novels, the protagonist who is a writer meets people while she is away in Greece or in London. They tell her stories about their lives, each one with a different perspective. Paradoxically, the protagonist is in the background as the stories told by her friends, colleagues and new people she meets take centre stage. While the main character’s story is never directly narrated, we learn something about her from the way she interacts with the others. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016. Incidentally, Outline was shortlisted for the same prize in 2014.
A Book with a Blue Cover
The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova
This one was easy simply because the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions made it so. All their fiction titles have blue covers. The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird and an ode to anachronism. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness.
Portobello Books is a publishing house to watch out for.
In 2015, it released the marvelous The Vegetarian by Korean author Han Hang which turned out to be one of my top reads that year. It’s a story about how a supposedly unremarkable woman decides one to day to become a vegetarian and shocks not only her husband but her whole family and the consequences this act has for everyone (this might not be such a big thing in our world and we are free to make that choice, but in a rigid society such as Korea, it is considered an act of rebellion).
I loved that book unreservedly and have always been keeping a close eye on Portobello’s catalogue every year.
When Portobello published Such Small Hands by Andres Barba, it caught my fancy. The premise of the novel was intriguing and the cover also had a lot to do with it. It’s quite creepy with the doll on the front.
Onto the story then…
This is how the novel opens:
Her father died instantly, her mother in the hospital.
“Your father died instantly, your mother is in a coma” were the exact words, the first ones that Marina heard. You could touch those words, rest your hand on each sinuous curve; expectant, incomprehensible words.
Marina has lost her parents in a car accident. Marina survives the crash, and while she is traumatised, she is unable to grasp the significance of what has happened. For her, the entire incident is an amalgam of sounds and images. She is too young to articulate these events into words.
Meanwhile, in the hospital, a psychologist is trying to help her cope and gives her a doll.
The doll was small and compact. The psychologist gave it to her to make her a real girl once and for all.
Marina is then told that she will be taken to an orphanage. She has no clue what an orphanage is, obviously not ever having been to one before.
It was too hard to look forward to the orphanage; she didn’t know how to do it. And unable to picture it, random images jumbled together and came gurgling out like a death rattle. She looked at dolly to quiet them. Someone had gone to her house and packed her a doubtful suitcase. Winter clothes and summer clothes all jumbled together.
It’s at the orphanage where the story shifts to a whole new level.
Up until now, the story is told from Marina’s point of view. But once the focus is on the orphanage, the author’s narration shifts to an eerie chorus; a chorus which represents all the other girls. After that, the narration alternates between Marina’s point of view and the chorus of the girls.
In an interview, Granta asked the author what drew him to the collective ‘we’ voice – the chorus, the voice of the other girls. This is what he said:
“I had a tough time finding the appropriate perspective to tell the tale. What finally changed it for me was recognizing that what I was writing was nothing more nor less than a Greek tragedy and that what was therefore needed was . . . a chorus! That discovery gave me a way to give the girls a voice that was both conscious and childlike. It was a literary device that allowed me to be inside and outside the girls.”
The moment Marina makes her entry, it is evident to the girls that she is different. And they do not know how to deal with it.
Marina’s individuality poses a threat to an otherwise calm existence the girls had been leading. Prior to her arrival, they all did the same thing, followed the same routines.
But once Marina is in their midst, they become aware of themselves, of their bodies in a way they never did before.
We don’t even know if we actually saw it: Marina’s scar. We had to defend ourselves against that scar that Marina didn’t hide. Suddenly, we saw each other seeing it, we differentiated each other among things, among the others, we differentiated her, her back, her walk, her eyes, her face like a vague feeling of fear.
And it all started there, like a breach, in her scar.
We became aware of each other and we felt naked before that body that wasn’t like our bodies. For the first time we felt fat, or ugly; we realized that we had bodies and that those bodies could not be changed. Just as she had materialized, we had materialized: these hands, these legs. Now we knew that we were inescapably the way we were. It was a discovery you could do nothing with, a discovery that served no purpose. We huddled together when she approached. We were afraid to touch her.
The girls are also not quite sure how to deal with Marina. They sense she is different. And that makes the girls love her and loathe her at the same time.
During the daytime, the girls are mean to Marina and treat her badly, and yet they are also fascinated by her and want her to be part of them. During the nights, Marina holds some power over them, inventing games that the girls want to eagerly play.
This is a short novel at 94 pages, but Barba manages to transport you into the world of children, their minds and how logic for them is ever shifting. It shows how children have a completely different world of their own. And all may not necessarily be hunky dory as adults perceive it to be. For most adults, children are the sweetest beings. But Barba highlights how children are equally prone to committing acts of cruelty, and playing politics. Adults may not think much of it (the adult world after all is far too complex), but for children their world is real, they live in the present with feelings and emotions that are quite intense.
I didn’t quite love this novel when I was reading it. And yet I was transfixed by it. As the novel veered towards its conclusion, it got murkier, haunting and gripping. More importantly, a few weeks after having read this book, it has stayed quite fresh in my mind and I continue to think about it from time to time; all of which are hallmarks of a very good novel.
Good literature has a way of transporting you to another world, offering you a glimpse of an author’s creative imagination and vision. Some authors, though, take their vision to a whole new level, a vision that is dystopian, dark and yet strangely compelling.
Camilla Grudova is one such author and her book A Doll’s Alphabet, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, is a treat.
The author write-up at the start of the novel does not reveal much. Grudova lives in Canada, and has a degree in Art History and German. That’s it. But while the bio is minimal, her stories have a lot to tell.
A Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird but in a good way. There’s plenty going on. Here’s a taster of some of them…
The first story “Unstitching” opens thus:
One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself. Her clothes, skin and hair fell from her like the peeled rind of a fruit, and her true body stepped out. Greta was very clean so she swept her old self away and deposited it in the rubbish bin before even taking notice of her new physiognomy, the difficulty of working her new limbs offering no obstruction to her determination to keep a clean home.
In ‘Waxy’, another superb story, the set-up is quite dystopian. Women work in Factories and the men are required to take Exams and bring home Exam money. It is also expected that every woman should have a man otherwise people would become suspicious.
If one’s Man did not do well on Exams, it was considered the woman’s fault for not providing a nurturing enough environment in which they could excel.
The narrator is a woman who stays in a flat that she shares with a couple Stuart and Pauline. She works in a Factory where she paints the company name on all its sewing machines. When the story opens, she is without a man. One day the woman brings a youngish man called Paul home. She realizes, a little too late, that he has neither Exam books nor identification papers. They decide to keep this strictly a secret between them. In the meanwhile, they become a couple and the narrator gives birth to a baby whom they name Waxy because ‘it was a tiny, waxy child, like a little cheese rind’ and because they are too scared to name it properly. Can Paul’s secret truly remain hidden especially from Stuart and Pauline? What will happen if they find out?
The other strong story in this collection is ‘Agata’s Machine’. This is a story of two eleven year olds, Agata and the narrator. Both of them are loners. But Agata is not tormented in school like the narrator is because she is a genius excelling in sciences and maths. One day, Agata invites the narrator to her home and the two withdraw into Agata’s attic. There Agata shows the narrator a sewing machine…
A gigantic black insect. It was a sewing machine, an old malicious one, black and gold, attached to its own desk with a treadle underneath, wrought metal like the grates over fire stoves and sewers.
Agata begins to pump the treadle. When the lights are turned off, the mason jar next to it begins to glow and the light inside morphs into a Pierrot. When it’s the narrator’s turn to work the treadle, the Pierrot does not appear but what she sees instead is an angel in the garb of a sailor. These are images that mesmerize the two girls and they take turns at pumping the treadle well into the night and for many days. This then is an unusual, dark story about obsession and indulging in destructive activity and what happens when it gets out of control.
In the last story ‘Notes from a Spider’, the narrator is part human, part spider with eight legs. One day, he comes across a sewing machine shop and gets besotted by a sewing machine called Florence. He brings it home and employs a string of seamstresses to make the machine work hard and transform the cloth. In Florence’s honour, the narrator also decides to open a sewing machine museum, which will supply a steady stream of seamstresses. However, in the beginning the machine is being fed with cloth, but what will happen later when the narrator begins to feed it his flesh?
Sewing machines, dolls, factories, mermaids, babies are some of the recurring motifs in this collection, and a general air of dirt and dereliction permeate all of these stories. Grudova has a way of drawing you into her surreal, unusual world with prose that is enthralling.
There is also a whiff of feminism in some of them. In the first story, men are portrayed as superficial.
There was also a small minority of men who tried to unstitch themselves with the aid of razorblades and knives, only to end up wounded and disappointed. They had no ‘true, secret’ selves inside, only what was taught and known.
There is an abundance of anachronistic subjects, an ode to something ancient, an older era. For instance, in the story ‘The Mouse Queen’, Peter’s shelves are stocked with green and red Loebs (the origins of classical wisdom, Greek and Latin respectively), his hair is slicked back ‘like a young Samuel Beckett’, and the church where Peter and the narrator marry has a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà. In another story ‘The Mermaid’, the character Emmeline is reading Homer and is fond of very old books, while her husband owns a shop called Old Time Things.
In an interview with Culture Trip, this is what Grudova had to say:
“The anachronistic aspect is from my own life, my family didn’t have a television till I was a pre -teen or a computer until I was a teenager, and we never owned a car, the sewing machine was the first machine in my life, my mother taught me how to use it, I made dolls, doll’s clothes, clothes for myself. It was very much an imaginative tool for me so I associate it with writing.
“I like looking for old treasures in the garbage. I find old technology useful to use to think about new technology, like not staring at something directly, maybe looking at its shadow instead.”
Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness. Each of these stories is haunting, dark, striking and will stay in your mind for a long, long time.