Nobody who has read the Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s brilliant, profoundly unsettling novel Fever Dream, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize in 2017, will be surprised to learn how well suited her talents are to the short-story form. Her disciplined economy in creating atmosphere and effect is allied to a refusal to overexplain. That stubborn, unapologetic resistance to revelation is one of the things that makes Mouthful of Birds, her debut collection in English, such a success.
Her quiet withholding has a great power to unnerve. The stories may be structured with something resembling finality, yet they never completely come to rest. (But how did she die? Where have they gone? And what’s that unnamed thing?) Whole selections of tales with clever twists can suffer diminishing returns, as the reader starts trying to pre-empt the surprises, but that doesn’t happen here – these aren’t narrative twists, so much as persistent underminings. Each story leaves your foundations just a little less firm, and over 20 pieces the effect is cumulative.
In the opening story, “Headlights”, which is one of the best, we begin with a jilted bride abandoned at the roadside. In another, a man has killed his wife and needs to confess; in a third, another man is stranded at a middle-of-nowhere railway station. None of these pieces unfolds as you might imagine. This is our world, and sharp-focused, but stripped of its usual meanings. Even banality is uncanny. One paragraph ominously begins: “From outside the house looked the same as always … ”
There are plenty of transcendental connections between people and animals or objects – what links a butterfly to a daughter, or a circus performer to a silver matchbox? – but definite connections between people are in shorter supply. In “Olingiris”, when the two main characters share a personal moment, it’s almost shocking. When their past intrudes into the hermetic world of the story, we are startled to discover they even have one.
It’s as if Schweblin is determined to find the deepest way into her readers’ nightmares
These settings are empty, nonspecific, with social rules that might as well be arbitrary, peopled by characters who feel misplaced; they may be stuck here, but that doesn’t mean they will accept their realities. There is one child narrator, with the expected unawareness of a child’s-eye view, but most adult narrators are no less baffled by the world. For one thing, it’s so hard to understand other people’s behaviour – a man trapped in a grim story with his daughter and ex-wife finds it impossible to predict what they’ll do next. (You’ll have deduced already that being trapped in a Samanta Schweblin story is not recommended.) Even when somewhere looks safe and still, there’s always unseen movement: “In the city, everything unseemly moved at night.” (Notice that great word, “unseemly” – once again, Schweblin’s artful co-conspirator in this book is translator Megan McDowell.)
As if she is determined to find the deepest way into her readers’ nightmares, many of the fears that Schweblin worries at repeatedly are primal. Well over half the stories draw their emotional charge from a deeply troubled relationship between a parent and a child. The parent might be mother or father, present or absent, calm or demented; the child might be young or adult or non-human. But the relationship is never without terrible disturbances, undermining what should be natural.
I’ve used that word “undermining” twice now. And Schweblin does indeed draw our attention to the threats of what might lurk beneath our feet, with multiple mysterious holes being dug into the landscape. Meanwhile, the very sense of what is “natural” is itself constantly undercut. “Preserves” turns a familiar story inside-out to create a metaphor expressing the weirdness of the experience of pregnancy. Several gut-punches come from the inclusion of animals, often the sorts of animal other writers would sentimentalise. Here they are mostly dead, and their deaths are never peaceful or timely. In “The Test” a dog needs to be killed, and things don’t end well – and not just for the dog. And yes, the birds in the title story do get eaten.
Schweblin asks if we’re strong enough to stare down the dark things in the world. Do we, like the man in “The Test”, waver? In two of the stories, brutal violence is twisted into horrific, intensely experienced art. In both cases, the art world proves almost insatiably greedy for work that embodies the most violent acts it can get its hands on. “Horror and beauty!” cries a curator called Donorio. “What a combination … ”
In “A Great Effort”, a man has a recurring dream. It’s mostly unexplained but its effects are deeply disconcerting, and lingering. After reading this collection, I know the feeling.