Claire Allfree reviews A Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (Oneworld)
In “Headlights”, the first story in A Mouthful of Birds, a young woman picks grains of rice off her dress as red car tail lights vanish into the distance. She has been abandoned by the side of the road by her husband on her wedding day for taking too long at a bathroom stop, a fate shared, it transpires, by hundreds of other brides, some of whom have been languishing in the fields around like a phantom mob for 40 years. As she waits, the young woman “can’t see anyone”, yet she knows “the women are there, just a few yards away”. Then, “something like hands brush against her legs, her neck, her fingertips”. She screams.
To read Samanta Schweblin is to feel almost physically something unseen and nasty brush against your skin. Already acclaimed in Latin America for her short stories, the Argentine writer won cult critical acclaim over here for her 2017 novella Fever Dream – a scalp-prickling eco nightmare structured around a series of conversations between a woman dying in hospital and a young boy. Now comes A Mouthful of Birds, a collection of short stories. All written before Fever Dream, they inhabit the same intensely imagined uncanny territory in which everyday normality is violently ruptured in ways that infiltrate your subconscious.
Fever Dream was, on one level, about a mother obsessed to an extreme degree with protecting her child, yet unable to do so. The vulnerabilities of childhood, and the inadequacies and corruptions of parental love, are an abiding concern here, too; the boundaries between parents and offspring are repeatedly transgressed or rendered unsafe. Children are as fragile as a winged insect held too tightly by a careless father in “Butterflies”, or as monstrous as a wild animal in “On the Steppe”, in which a childless couple embark on an extreme fertility measure in the wilderness. In “Underground”, a mining town loses all its children in a twist on the Pied Piper of Hamelin, while in “The Size of Things” a grown man regresses into a terrorised state of childhood after working in a toyshop, finally cowering before his mother as she bends to pick him up. “Preserves” gives us, queasily, an abortion: “She’ll wait for us,” thinks the female narrator. “She’ll be okay until the time is right. Then he hands me the jar and finally, gently, I spit her out.”
Schweblin is often described as a writer of horror, like a literary David Lynch. Many of these stories, with their implacably unhinged scenarios, hark back to an older form of storytelling: folk tale, myth. Their oddness is structural: people dig holes for no evident reason, or find themselves stuck at isolated train stations or in abandoned towns. Others feature mysterious strangers who know more than they ought, like the tramp in “The Test”, who warns the narrator against the dogs who sleep by the fountain in the square. The very best stories here – “Rage of Pestilence”, “Toward Happy Civilization” – have an eerie, anonymous resonance that makes them feel instantly familiar, as if they had already been lurking in your bones.
These are fictions of indisputable power, presenting modern life as a farcical horror show in which our limitations and destructive appetites have made us ugly, ridiculous and doomed. Yet the weaker stories – this collection of 20 would have been better as 12 – expose Schweblin’s dependence on absurdist conceits at the expense of emotional depth. She’s the polar opposite of Chekhov, being much more interested in the power of a single, horrifying image than in a detailed psychological portrait. Her tales resemble surreal cinematic shorts you might stumble upon at night while trawling Netflix, peopled by teenage girls who eat live sparrows for lunch and men who carry their wives in a suitcase, with little explanation offered for the strangeness. In some cases, there’s scant incentive to read the story more than once. Nor is there anything to match the technical audacity that made Fever Dream exceptional.
At her best, though, Schweblin’s stories linger with the same persistence as a noxious hangover, turning the day sour and disturbed. Take the excellent, sharply feminist “Olingiris”, in which a woman from the countryside lands a job in the city, with six women each day lining up to pluck her legs clean. The humble tweezers will never look the same way again.
A Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin, tr Megan McDowell
228pp, Oneworld, £12.99, ebook £7.19. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk to order from the Telegraph for £10.99