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Review: ‘Mouthful of Birds’ by Samanta Schweblin

Following the success of her debut novel Fever Dream, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, Mouthful of Birds is Samanta Schweblin’s first collection of short stories published in English. People have rightly compared her dark, surreal style with Kafka, the Grimm brothers, and even the films of David Lynch, but there is something distinctly startling in these 21st Century Argentinian stories. 

The first story, ‘Headlights’, begins with a newlywed abandoned by her husband as she takes a toilet break on the side of a highway. He drives off and she finds herself stranded amongst an otherworldly community of jilted brides. The story is flipped on its head — something you’ll get used to while reading the collection. The twists in the plots are like hard handbrake turns, perspectives shift with a screech.

Schweblin sweeps across a large area of life in Buenos Aires, from brutal gangs in stories like ‘The Test’, to the art world in stories like ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’Some of the stories are barely a few pages long. Schweblin is brilliant at boiling off the excess in a story, leaving something dense and essential. The brevity and compelling writing style propel you through the collection quickly — you can finish a story in a matter of minutes.

The collection is wide-ranging. Schweblin is a writer unafraid to blend genre, from gothic to magical realism and fantasy. The one connecting thread that runs throughout is the theme of change. Like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, each story shows some form of transformation and like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, this change is uncanny and grotesque.

As is seen in Fever Dream, Schweblin is talented at creating suspense. There’s an eerie escalation in each story, as if with each sentence Schweblin is blowing up a balloon, bigger and bigger until, in the last paragraph, it is so full of air that it pops. These snap moments at the climax of each story are brilliant. Mouthful of Birds is filled with cliffhanger endings, each one satisfying in its own way. You’re left wanting more, but you don’t feel cheated out of a good ending.

Reading the book admittedly puts you in a strange head space. Her immersive style brings you down into the minds of characters who are hardly ever in control. They’re as lost in the stories as we are, stumbling through Schweblin’s strange new worlds. There’s a slight sense of detachment in her writing style, creating a sense of separation between what a character is thinking and what they are doing. It’s as if you are watching the stories unfold from the sunken place in Jordan Peele’s Get Out — the horror lies in being able to watch, but not being able to act.

One of my favourite stories in the collection, ‘Santa Claus Sleeps At Our House’, is written from the perspective of a young child oblivious to their parents’ marriage falling apart. A depressive mother and an aggressive father struggle to keep the family together while the child can think of only one thing: the remote control car they asked to get for Christmas. The story starts, “the Christmas when Santa Claus spent the night at our house was the last time we were all together.” Sentences like this are brilliantly translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, who also translated Fever Dream. The McDowell/Schweblin combination seems to working wonders, so let’s hope McDowell is hard at work at bringing Schweblin’s other short stories to English-speaking readers.

Listed in The Mancunion’s most anticipated books of 2019, Mouthful of Birds comes strongly recommended. Schweblin is a writer fascinated with the dark underside of society. She unearths and exposes things like a curious child picking up a rock from the floor, turning it over to see the wet dark mud beneath it, and all manner of insects running.

Tags: book review, Books In Translation, Fever Dream, Mouthful of Birds, Samanta Schweblin

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