This was my choice for the August Just One More Pa(i)ge Reading Challenge prompt: Women in Translation month. It was a great chance to both read something totally different and, in this case, to work on my side goal of reading more books by Latinx/Spanish-speaking authors. And this was such a good choice. Completely different from anything I’ve ever read before and illuminating/insightful in what was, basically, a completely frightening and totally macabre way. Enriquez truly brings to life, shines a light into the darkness of, contemporary historical Argentina, as its present generations work to recover from and reset the country after years of violent dictatorships, privation and volatility (the aftermath of which are palpable throughout the collection).
As always with short story collections, I have included little blurb reactions to each individual story. And then at the end I have some overall/wrap-up comments. [Side note: my copy of this book smells amazinggggg and every times I open it to start a new story (and sometimes just randomly) I take giant sniffs of the pages. *swoon*]
The Dirty Kid – This story drops us right into the middle of a dangerous country, pulling no punches with its disturbing imagery and the pervasive hopelessness that comes of living surrounded by and infected with fear and lack of security. It’s also a striking insight into how quickly and easily a person can become inured to violence and horror, even in the extreme, when it’s an everyday occurrence…at least until it’s dropped at your own doorstep, until it becomes personal, and then it’s impossible to ignore or overlook or be complacent with. What a opening story. What a tone-setter. “I realized…how little I cared about people, how natural these desperate lives seemed to me.” “Maybe I wasn’t the princess in her castle; maybe I was a madwoman locked in her tower.”
The Inn – A strange, quick little story. A mix of historical/ghostly fear and inner fears combined to create a sort of hallucinated invasion or encounter. Not sure how I felt about this one, as it ended so abruptly, just a snapshot of a moment of fear. But I guess that’s the way fear works, and there’s a message in that. Plus, a great highlight of how “haunted” everywhere in Argentina is by the past.
The Intoxicated Years – Again, no holds barred with the imagery, though this time, in place of the violence from the first story, there is drug misuse/abuse. And deeper than that, it’s a look at the only coping mechanisms available for youth who grow up in uncertain (at best) times with adults around them who have no better coping mechanisms to model. Misery and insecurity covered by anything available that can help you forget. It’s heartbreaking and, because of what I do for a living, I cannot help but imagine the paths their lives will take…the chances of things getting better, even with a physical change to/removal from the situation, are so substantially unrealistic it hurts.
Adela’s House – This was a creepy little tale. I can’t decide if I prefer to read it at literal, face-value for horror or if I prefer to think of the entire situation around Adela’s house/arm/obsessions as a metaphor for fear/violence and the affect it has on youth and their lifelong mental state. Either way, it was an excellent creation of a deeply unsettling ambiance.
An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt – Oh this one had such a great spine-chilling vibe to it! It read like an old school ghost story, with the addition of some incredibly gruesome descriptions of murder(strong TW for child murder), that give a great portrayal of the dark side of Buenos Aires (or, truly, any city). This was a more straightforward tale, for me, than many of the other stories have been, but still had some elements that were representative in a deeper way as well. And oh man I was really worried it was going to end differently than it did and I heaved a great sigh of relief when that wasn’t what happened!
Spiderweb – Oh I liked this one. Ghost stories and local mysteries set the tone for the real-time mystery at the end. Plus, it has some of the most poetic writing in the collection so far. The lead-in was a little long, but it was necessary to make the ending work. And I loved Natalia’s character, sort of ethereal and enigmatic, and you get to the end wondering if she didn’t have something to do with what happened. It’s perfectly built and executed. And the way both women basically remorselessly and, really, unquestionably leave at the end – ooooh I was into that feel. “I hate when people call them lightening bugs; firefly is a beautiful word. Once, I caught a bunch of them in an empty mayonnaise jar, and I realized how ugly they really are, like cockroaches with wings. But they’ve been blessed with the purest possible justice. Still and grounded, they look like a pest, but when they fly and light up, they are the closest thing to magic, a portent of beauty and goodness.”
End of Term – Wow. This was intense (TW: self-harm). Similar to the third story (The Intoxicated Years), I’m wondering about the lack of control (or other traumas) these girls have experienced during their lives that are causing these kinds of reactions and coping mechanisms. It’s really hard to think about, but also I think that point is one of the major ones in the whole collection, and making us think about the tough things like, the “unintended” collateral, that is the author’s goal/message.
No Flesh over Our Bones – A super short story about a morbid fascination that starts to turn into an obsession and withdrawal from society. It seemed a little metaphorical, but I can’t put my finger on it…so it can, clearly, also be taken literally. Also, an interesting side focus on food and food control (over-eating versus not eating). “We all walk over bones in this city, it’s just a question of making holes deep enough to reach the buried dead.”
The Neighbor’s Courtyard – Well, that was terrifying. Good thing I didn’t read this one at night! Seriously, what a disturbing mix of a traditional “haunting”-based horror story and the reality of burnout effects from working in high-stress/strain/trauma jobs without any self-care options. This piece has a lot of layers about chronic and trauma based mental health issues, as well as the myriad ways those affect lives/relationships. And the fear hits like ton of brinks at the end.
Under the Black Water – Whoa. This story is the epitome of this book’s ability to take the dark and terrible reality (in this case, poverty and police/state corruption) and turn it just slightly into something supernaturally dark and terrible that exaggerates and allegories that reality. It’s such an impressive line to walk, not taking anything away from the importance of the message about the seedy/sordid truths of existence, yet giving it the extra push into a nightmarish symbolic amplification. So. Good.
Green Red Orange – This one was a bit different from many of the other stories. Still with some really dark descriptions and references, but in a more distant/theoretical way than the other stories. Again though, there’s a big focus on mental health and the difficulty many people have in seeing mental health issues as true illnesses, the same as any other disease (i.e. cancer). Anyways, despite the relative distance I felt from this story, I still came away unsettled and uneasy, right in line with the rest of the collection. “Sad people are merciless.”
Things We Lost in the Fire – Wow. Just wow. I understand why this is the titular story and why it’s the last in the collection. The visceral reality of violence against women is taken to an extreme here in such a unique way – where in an effort to reclaim and own their own bodies and fates, women are choosing to enact this violence against themselves. It’s horrifying and terrible with such a strong message about how, for women living in times and places where things are unstable (politically and socially), they are faced with no single good choice, simply choices between bad and worse. What a striking and affecting finale.
I found that, with this collection more than any other I’ve read, I’m tying so many of the stories back to the title of the collection. I’m contemplating the state of the country that raised this author, her life there, and how that led to these stories being in her and needing to come out. It’s fascinating to consider and analyze, in a horrifying way. And I have finished my reading experience feeling, deeply, the consequences of Argentina’s troubling (to put it mildly) recent history on its people. This collection did all that and then took it a step further. I mean, I knew it would be dark and, at times, tough to read, based on other reviews I had seen. But it went past that – it actually crossed over into the realm of true “scary” stories. The types of things told to frighten the reader and cause nightmares. Some of it, I could see, acted as metaphor and hyperbole of real life, which is dreadful and depressing, of course. But some, some was just good old shock and dread. So come in ready for that, but do come, because this is a collection whose topics and messages deserved to be translated and, still more, deserve wide readership.