Tag Archives: Megan McDowell

Historical horror, supernatural stories, and a gentle gem: three books reviewed

Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation, tr. Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books)
Mariana Enriquez, Things We Lost in the Fire, tr. Megan McDowell (Portobello Books)
Leonard and Hungry Paul, Rónán Hession (Bluemoose Books)

Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2015)

I started the year’s reading with a book I felt sure would be a safe bet, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation (translated by Susan Bernofsky for Portobello Books). I’d greatly enjoyed Erpenbeck’s two other books in translation, the magnificent The End of Days and Go Went Gone, and so completing the Erpenbeck/Bernofsky/Portobello trilogy seemed like a good way to get my 2019 reading off to a stellar start.

And yet… I was disappointed. I simply didn’t connect with the story or the characters in Visitation. There are many themes in Visitation that are echoed in The End of Days – most notably, the progression of German history through the 20th century – but whereas in The End of Days this is viewed through a single character who lives (and dies, and lives again) through the events, in Visitation the focus is on a house by a lake in Brandenburg, which sees inhabitants (including a family of Jews and a regiment of soldiers) come and go throughout the years, and stands as a silent witness to the atrocities of the 20th century.

Visitation is as beautifully written and consummately translated as The End of Days and Go Went Gone, with many instances of Erpenbeck’s brutally poetic minimalism, such as in this extract: “Two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside of Łodz, after Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before, all their assets, together with the assets remaining in Germany that belonged to their son, Ludwig, who has emigrated, are seized…” The house with its specially designed walk-in closet is also suitably spooky, and there are some understated one-liners brimming with personal and historical tragedy (“then she takes off her shoes forever and goes to stand on the board to be shot”) and lyrical comments on 20th-century German history (“even this dutiful German official had known that home would never again be called Bavaria, the Baltic coast or Berlin, home had been transformed into a time that now lay behind him, Germany had been irrevocably transformed into something disembodied, a lost spirit that neither knew nor was forced to imagine all these horrific things.”) So it’s not that I disliked Visitation, but it didn’t engage me in the way that The End of Days and Go Went Gone did. I found it hard to maintain interest in (and thus enthusiasm for) the story/stories, and the house itself failed to move me. It’s always worth reading Erpenbeck, so I wouldn’t advise against reading Visitation, but I did feel that it had almost been a practice run for the utter brilliance of The End of Days.

Mariana Enriquez, Things We Lost in the Fire, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Portobello Books, 2017)

Two things that don’t normally appeal to me are horror stories and the supernatural, so Things We Lost in the Fire (a collection of supernatural horror stories) wasn’t an obvious choice for me. Yet it has received consistently excellent reviews, and with good reason: Mariana Enriquez writes characters and situations that are universally recognisable, and twists them deftly yet mercilessly into your worst nightmares. You’ll know from my reviews of Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream and Mouthful of Birds how much I admire Megan McDowell’s translations, and her translation of Enriquez’s short stories is perfectly controlled and dark, showcasing her own admiration for “writers who can combine the transgressive joy of horror with literary depth and original style”.

Things We Lost in the Fire is about as perfect an example of the art of short story writing as I’ve seen. Each story is exquisitely crafted: the details are full while being minimal, the characterisation impeccable, and the descriptive sections vivid yet concise. I’m going to focus on the two stories that I enjoyed the most: the first was ‘Under the Black Water’, with its themes of environmental pollution, deformed children, and the monsters we unleash on the world. A female district attorney known for her integrity is following up leads on a slum murder case when the victims seem to rise from the dead – indeed, from the depths – and we are invited not only to see a grotesque reality we might prefer to ignore, but question our own complicity in this reality for the fact of having ignored it. If this doesn’t reel you in, perhaps a quotation will: “She had no time to react; the priest was drunk, but his movement when he grabbed her gun was surprisingly fast and precise. She couldn’t even fight back, nor did she see that the deformed child had turned around and started screaming mutely. His mouth was open and he screamed without a sound.” You’ll have to read it to find out what fate awaits the priest, the DA, and the child.

The other story that really stood out for me was the title story, ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’, in which women protest against their life of silence and suffering by setting themselves on fire. Self-immolation spreads as if by contagion, women burning themselves to confront male violence and a society that tells them how they should be. But this is not necessarily presented as a positive thing: while one burned woman describes it as “a new kind of beauty”, the pain – and deaths – resulting from this macabre struggle for control and agency are also detailed. And when the “bonfires” become commonplace, society simply accepts the shift, the protagonist’s mother so chillingly committed to the cause that she would offer her daughter up in sacrifice. Nothing is straightforward or black and white in Enriquez’s stories, and that’s why, though I wouldn’t have expected to be championing a collection of horror stories, I found Things we Lost in the Fire to be excellent.

Leonard and Hungry Paul, Rónán Hession (Bluemoose Books, forthcoming 2019)

And now for something completely different… my Twitter friend, Rónán Hession, is releasing his debut novel this month with independent publisher Bluemoose Books, and I had the joy of reading an advance copy of this anthem to gentleness and quiet humour. I first encountered Rónán during Women in Translation month last August, when we both read and loved Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup (translated by Charlotte Coombe for Charco Press, and reviewed here), and we’ve exchanged many comments about our women in translation reading ever since. I was slightly nervous about reading his own work (if I wasn’t crazy about it, wouldn’t it be terribly awkward?) but I didn’t have to deal with that, because it is a SUPERB debut. Through his two main characters (the eponymous Leonard and Hungry Paul), Hession finds pathos in the everyday, turning the humdrum into something magical.

We meet socially awkward Leonard just after his mother’s death, at a time when the family of his best friend (Hungry Paul) is preparing for the wedding of Hungry Paul’s older sister, Grace. Hession combines instances of the unsaid (we never find out why Hungry Paul got his nickname, and he may or may not be autistic, but the word is never used) with others of great detail (I never thought accounts of board game marathons could be so compelling, and just wait for the moment when an irate Hungry Paul takes a past-its-use-by-date tin of Roses chocolates back to the supermarket), and writes every page with immense warmth; to read Leonard and Hungry Paul is to live a while in their world. I love that Rónán was unafraid to write a book where nothing “happens” as such – because life is happening on every page, and this is one of the most life-affirming books I have read in a long time. Its gentle tone harbours some profound insights (“It may well be that if you truly want to open a heart, you need to break it open”; “We are never entirely outside of life’s choices; everything leads somewhere”), and by the end I had tears streaming down my face. I didn’t want to say goodbye to these characters, I cared about them: I wanted to tell Hungry Paul that the “strange pocket-within-a-pocket that denim jeans have” is called a coin pocket (this knowledge would have saved him from a great childhood humiliation) and hug Grace when she realised that “it was possible to make someone feel so loved at the very moment you are letting them go.” Gentleness and kindness are under-rated qualities, and they abound in Leonard and Hungry Paul: the characters may be fictional, but a real person wrote them, and that makes me feel just that bit better about the world.

As always, thank you for reading, and I’ll be back on Friday for a special International Women’s Day post!

Haunting and hypnotic short stories: Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds

Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (OneWorld, forthcoming February 2019)

Acclaimed Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin returns with this eerie collection of short stories brimming with murdered wives, abandoned brides, abject bodies, lost children, and evil spirits. Schweblin has perfected the art of writing on the fine line between reality and nightmare: by the end of each story, the comfortably recognisable world which has initially been shown to us has shifted towards something altogether more terrifying.

Image from oneworld-publications.com

Schweblin first came to English-language readers’ attention with her novella Fever Dream, also translated by Megan McDowell and also published by OneWorld: it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, and is currently in production to be turned into a Netflix series. I loved Fever Dream, and not because I like horror stories (quite the opposite, in fact), but because I couldn’t put it down once I’d started. Like Fever Dream, Mouthful of Birds is hypnotically compelling: though each story is self-contained, I often found myself automatically carrying on to the next story even if I hadn’t planned to do so. The stories are well organised and form a coherent collection, broaching topics including environmental damage, ephemerality and mortality, private sorrows hidden behind projections of success or normality, infertility and mindless reproduction, the horrific things humans do because they are rejected for being different, and some wry observations about modern art and the patriarchy.

Schweblin’s talent is, for me, twofold: firstly, she is gifted at presenting a seemingly ordinary story, set in a tangible, recognisable world, and deftly slipping from the familiar to the unthinkable. Secondly, and this is possibly even more apparent in the short stories of Mouthful of Birds than in Fever Dream, she manages to combine complexity and concision in a quite remarkable way (consider, for example, this opening to the final story: “He returns to the room carrying a suitcase. Durable, lined in brown leather, it stands on four wheels and offers up its handle elegantly at knee level. He doesn’t regret his actions. He thinks that the stabbing of his wife had been fair, but he also knows that few people would understand his reasons.”) Megan McDowell does a superb job of translating Schweblin, gleefully communicating the sense of foreboding in the slightly-not-normal.

The collection opens with the magnificent “Headlights”, in which fields whispering with ghostly crowds turn out to be a bevy of jilted brides emerging from the darkness around the highway where the protagonist has been abandoned in her wedding dress after taking too long in the roadside facilities. I’m not going to spoil the ending here; I’ll just say it’s unexpected and brilliant. The title story, “Mouthful of Birds”, is an excellent example of how the familiar becomes suddenly threatening: a father, irritated by his ex-wife’s insistence that he take more of a responsibility for their daughter, goes to see her and finds her uncharacteristically serene and healthy. So far, so normal. But then a birdcage is unveiled, and the daughter gorges herself on its (living) occupant before turning round to bestow a bloody smile on her horrified father.

Many of the stories take place in liminal or desolate spaces: the highway, the countryside, an empty diner, a deserted railway station, on the way somewhere but never quite arriving, and these border places add to the sense of uncertainty. There are dead wives (one lying on the kitchen floor of a roadside restaurant, one stuffed ignominiously into a suitcase), lost children (an almond-sized foetus preserved for a future gestation, the sudden disappearance of a group of children obsessed with digging, a longed-for childlike being who is never seen, but seems to be a savage evil spirit), mild-mannered psychopaths and vengeful creatures, and nothing is ever quite what it seems. Turning points abound; “They lost their children that night” is the laconic pivotal moment of a story told over a rural beer counter, and when a man fails a gruesome rite of passage, the simple phrase “you hesitated” seals his fate, the ensuing horror left to our imagination. There is a dreamlike quality to Schweblin’s work that contrasts well with her tightly-structured tales; an unknown that pushes us towards a conclusion that, once reached, seems as though it was always inevitable, and which (whether we want to or not) we finish for ourselves.

My mention of dreams and nightmares are not arbitrary: they are referenced in the collection both explicitly (when a man believes that he has killed his wife and keeps waking up in his doctor’s house, wondering whether he dreamed the sequence of events) and implicitly (another character is trapped in a remote train station because he does not have the exact fare to continue his journey, and ends up being subsumed into life in the railway station). If there is something unsettling about Mouthful of Birds it is surely because, though Schweblin’s work has been described as “Gothic” or “magic realism”, the real horror comes from situations much closer to reality than we might like to think. In a recent interview, Schweblin commented on this aspect of her work, saying: “I love that it’s described as fantasy, because I’d like to think that’s a reflection of the impact it has on the reader: just the idea that something like that might happen to you makes you want to stick that world in the realm of fantasy.” The power of these stories lies in the way that they confront us with recognisable situations and turn them into a place we wish to avoid.

I suspect that Schweblin’s star will continue to rise, and if you’re not already familiar with her work, Mouthful of Birds is a good introduction. I do prefer Fever Dream – though this may be partly a question of genre, as short stories aren’t my favourite form – but If you’ve already read and enjoyed Fever Dream then you shouldn’t be disappointed. Addictive and imaginative,  Mouthful of Birds offers well-crafted stories of isolation and disintegration.

Review copy provided by Oneworld Publications.

“Something terrible will happen”: Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream

Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld, 2017)

Usually I think that the phrase “I couldn’t put it down” is just a figure of speech, but in the case of Fever Dream it sums up my reading experience. I read it in one sitting: it’s disturbing, terrifying, and absolutely mesmerising. Fever Dream was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, and was Argentine author Samanta Schweblin’s debut novel (though she has previously published short stories). Published by OneWorld in 2017, it epitomises OneWorld’s commitment to seeking out “emotionally engaging stories with strong narratives and distinctive voices”, and Megan MacDowell’s powerful translation sweeps along with an almost hypnotic urgency.

Image taken from https://oneworld-publications.com

Fever Dream is a frighteningly real supernatural tale, in which fear and suspense are built up by what we are left to imagine just as much as by what we are shown. The text is made up of a dialogue between a woman lying in a bed in an emergency clinic, and a boy sitting beside her, asking her questions. The boy is insistent that they find out about “the worms” and “the exact moment”, and the woman tells a story that is at once meandering, owing to her confusion, and urgent, as she has very little time left. There are only four main characters in this short novel: two mothers and two children. Amanda, the woman lying in the hospital bed, had brought her daughter Nina on holiday from Buenos Aires to the Argentine countryside (a bleak landscape of seemingly endless soy fields), leaving her husband working in Buenos Aires. Nina is a small and adorable child who Amanda needs to protect from something dreadful, the threat of which has been hanging over her not just since the beginning of the narration, but her whole life: “My mother always said something bad would happen. My mother was sure that sooner or later something bad would happen, and now I can see it with total clarity, I can feel it coming toward us like a tangible fate, irreversible.” This premonition feeds the narrative, and the narrative feeds off it, putting inevitability and presentiment at the forefront of Amanda’s story.

The third character is Carla, who lives next door to Amanda’s holiday rental cottage. Carla tells Amanda a disturbing and supernatural tale of how at the age of six her angelic son, David, escaped death by poisoned water through a process of “transmigration” so that his soul is now partly in another body and she is left with a “monster” in place of her beloved only child. The final character is David himself, now twelve, who is sitting on the hospital bed urging the narrator to tell the story of what happened so that he can pinpoint the exact moment that the “worms” entered her body and changed the course of her life.

The “fever dream” of the title is recounted by Amanda, in something akin to real time, in that it is told in the present tense, but narrates something that happened in a recent past (David tells her at one point that she has been in the feverish state for two days): “I don’t remember much else, that’s all that is happening.” A feeling of somnambulant terror prevails: the immediacy of the present tense in both the dialogue and the dream suggests that this dream could go anywhere, change at any moment, but that the dreamer has no control over its course. Alongside the recounting of the dream is Amanda’s awareness of the real-life situation she is in: lying in bed in a clinic, wondering where her daughter is, knowing she has very little time left. She is also aware that David is not answering her questions but rather probing her with his own, determined to reach a conclusion that he deems to be essential but which to her is “unhelpful” and “missing the most important information.”

“David is a terrifying prompter… mercilessly pushing Amanda on towards an event that will explain why she is lying in a clinic with her life spilling out of her, and which will explain what happened to her child.”

David is the only one who seems to have any control: he decides what is important and what is not, which details can be skipped over and which must be recalled in all their minutiae. David guides Amanda through the labyrinth of her own memory, but at times it seems as though David could change the course of the dream at any moment: “What is Nina doing? She’s such a pretty girl. What is she doing? She walks away a little. Don’t let her walk away.” However, when Amanda attempts to take control of the course of the narrative, it all spirals away: David tells her that she is focusing on the wrong things, and we see a sinister echo of the “thing” that happened: while she was looking away, focusing on something else, the “thing” came in.

Writing for The Guardian, Chris Power opines that “Paradoxically, this is a book only parents will feel the full impact of, but that impact is so great you don’t want to recommend it to anyone with young children.” Indeed, I have to admit that this was an uncomfortable read as a mother of young children: the insistence that it is in trying to protect a child from the danger we can see that we fail to notice the real danger taps into my innermost fears (though I think that might be the point), and the constant references to the “rescue distance” between mother and child (the importance of the rescue distance is evident in the novel’s original title, “Distancia de rescate”) become a painful refrain that goes from conceptual to physical as the nightmare gallops towards its inevitable conclusion:

Why do mothers do that?
What?
Try to get out in front of anything that could happen – the rescue distance.
It’s because sooner or later something terrible will happen. My grandmother used to tell my mother that, all through her childhood, and my mother would tell me, throughout mine. And now I have to take care of Nina.
But you always miss the important thing.
What is the important thing, David?”

David sidesteps the question, of course. We keep being reminded (by David) that time (Amanda’s time) is running out, and that some secret must be revealed before her death. Yet David seems to know already what happens: Amanda has repeated her story several times, and sometimes he pre-empts what she is going to remember: “In a few minutes, Nina will be left alone in the car.”

Let me be clear: I don’t like horror stories. I’m one of those people who will turn the lights on and check every corner of the house if I’ve read or watched anything remotely frightening. I should have hated Fever Dream, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t, because it’s so clever, and so perfectly terrifying. It goes far beyond dystopia, and into the realm of nightmares, yet it all feels so real, so possible, so recognisable from the powerlessness we know from our own nightmares: “I wonder if Nina is following us, but I can’t turn to check or ask the question out loud.” The construction of the book is striking: it’s a dialogue, but really it seems more like a monologue narration with a prompter getting it back on track when lines are forgotten, and telling both Schweblin’s protagonist and her readers what is and isn’t important, what is worth describing in detail and what can be glossed over. David is a terrifying prompter, though, mercilessly pushing Amanda on towards an event that will explain why she is lying in a clinic with her life spilling out of her, and which will explain what happened to her child.

There are ambiguities in this novel, but they are there deliberately, to destabilise, and to bring you into Amanda’s fever dream where reality and fantasy collide in brutal ways. While my description may make you think that David is an inexorable harbinger of doom, there is also something he is trying to lead Amanda towards, something he wants her to know before the rope that determines the rescue distance is broken. And when you find out what this “something” is, it will tear down the walls around your heart.

Fever Dream is both a reflection on – or a warning about – environmental damage, and a terrifying story of power and pain, loss and love. The relentless landscape of the soy fields and the repeated mentions of “poison” could make this a dystopian warning about genetic modification, but at the forefront are the entwined stories of two mothers and their love for children they are, ultimately, powerless to protect. It’s terrifying, chilling, haunting – everything you’d expect a nightmare to be – but Fever Dream is a brilliant book, a wonderful debut, and not to be missed.

Image taken from www.wordswithoutborders.org. Read full interview with Schweblin at https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/2017-man-booker-international-prize-qa-samanta-schweblin-eric-m-b-becker