Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

Like most collections of short stories Mouthful of Birds has some stories that are hits and ones that are misses. I think the collection definitely showcases Samanta Schweblin’s creativity and versatility. While most of the stories are permeated by the surreal they differ in tone and subject.

Schweblin makes the familiar feel unfamiliar. Many of the stories examine recognisable scenarios from an unexpected angle and it often takes a little time to catch up to what is going on.
One of my favourite stories, ‘Toward Happy Civilisation’, had some very strong Kafkaesque vibes and the creepy yet bizarre atmosphere I would except in a story by Shirley Jackson. Another favourite of mine was ‘The Merman’, an unapologetically offbeat tale involving, you guessed it, a merman and that reminded me of Kevin Wilson.

As much as I appreciated Schweblin’s dark humour and the weirdness of her stories, there were a few unmemorable ones. The title story was a bit of a letdown (I didn’t find it all that ‘shocking’ or subversive) and the really short ones were rather, if not completely, forgettable. I also did not care for that story that relied on animal cruelty. Not only did I not find it to be ‘horrific’ but it just came across as gratuitous and voyeuristic (gore and violence are cheap ways to ‘inspire’ fear).
Nevertheless I would probably pick up more of Schweblin work as this collection did show some promise.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez

Well…that was disappointing. Given the hype around this collection and the comparisons to Shirley Jackson, I was prepared to read some truly unsettling tales. However, as with a lot of other contemporary authors of horror, Mariana Enríquez relies on body horror, gore, and animal violence to instil feelings of unease in her readers…and while her stories are certainly macabre, I wouldn’t call them gothic. The horror too was too splatter for me. Writing about bodily fluids, decomposing or mutilated bodies, doesn’t necessarily make your story scary. While reading these rather samey stories I merely felt a knee-jerk repulsion. Most stories are narrated by morbid and unsatisfied young women who are experience, or have experienced, something truly horrific: they loose childhood friends to haunted houses, they start seeing disturbing things such as chained “deformed” children, or they loose themselves in violent fantasies. They had more or less the same grunge-esque personality and or were aspiring to become part of their country’s counter-culture. I found their voices to be monotonous and, given all their attempts at subversiveness, surprisingly banal.

What frustrated me the most was the fact that not one of the story had a decent ending. I’m all for open endings, and I think that short stories suit ambiguous endings…but here the stories never reached their apex. Each story would have these ominous first few lines, foreshadowing the horrors to come…but then the stories seemed to cut off just when things start to get vaguely intriguing or disturbing.

Lastly, a lot of the stories relied on the appearance of “deformed” children or adults in order to unnerve its main characters…are we in the 1980s? Call me snowflake or whatever but I found the author’s obsession with deformed bodies to be rather outdated.

MY RATING: 2 out of 5 stars

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Optic Nerve by María Gainza
★★★★✰ 3.5 stars

“I am a woman hovering at the midpoint of life, but I still haven’t lost my touch completely: it is within my power, for instance, to flit from the Schiavoni painting in the National Museum of Fine Arts to the Miguel Carlos Victorica they hold in the Sívori Gallery. In other words, to make the shift from childhood to old age in an instant. ”

A series of interesting vignettes that juxtapose the lives of famed and lesser-known artists to the experiences of the people in our narrator’s orbit.
This novel is an ode and a critique of art. There isn’t a cohesive storyline nor a plot, bur rather it is an examination and a mediation on the people who create art. These artists use different mediums to different effects yet they all seem to similarly alienated (a fact that our narrator is quick to point out). I enjoyed learning about their lives, Gainza related their histories in a compelling voice, even when I didn’t agree with the narrator’s pronunciations on their work (she is dismissive of Monet). Often the narrator looked back on a symbolic moment or aspect of their lives to better understand their work.
The narrator is an ambiguous and multivalent presence, and she links art to the experiences of her friends and acquaintances. Art becomes the lens through which she can make sense of her own life and those of her friends. For instance after our narrator views a painting by Alfred De Dreux (depicting a dying deer) she then recounts the unfortunate death of an old college friend. There was always something that connected these personal anecdotes to the artists that our narrator critiqued.
There is loneliness, beauty, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and a general sense of estrangement (from one’s self, from the world).

“There’s nothing more subterraneously oppressive than a family legend. My father was a talented sculptor, but became an architect; he used to say that in life we do what’s required of us, not what we want. But I saw what this did to him over time, how his frustration grew. It wasn’t helped by my mother, whose great aspirations for all of us were equal only to her deep-seated fear that we would fail her.”

The narrator uses quotations of other authors to convey her feelings or impressions, and the novel itself seems to be aware that it is a deeply intertextual work.
The style is unapologetically experimental (a la Rachel Cusk), and you sort of have to follow its enigmatic flow. There are some beautiful reflection nestled within this unconventional narrative, and I think this is a must for the lovers of the arts.
A short and interesting read, I look forward for more from Gaiza.

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