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‘Things We Lost in the Fire’ by Mariana Enriquez ****

Argentinian author Mariana Enriquez’ debut English language collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, had been on my radar for a while before I found a copy in my local library.  It sounded wonderfully creepy and unsettling; the Financial Times writes that it is ‘full of claustrophobic terror’, and Dave Eggers says that it ‘hits with the force of a freight train’.  The Irish Times goes further, proclaiming that this is the only book which has caused their reviewer to be ‘afraid to turn out the lights’.  I cautiously began it in broad daylight, but was surprisingly brave enough to read a couple of these stories just before bedtime.

9781846276361-ukThe twelve stories collected in Things We Lost in the Fire are of ‘ghosts, demons and wild women; of sharp-toothed children and stolen skulls’.  They are almost entirely set in the Argentinian capital, Buenos Aires, described in the book’s blurb as a series of ‘crime-ridden streets of [a] post-dictatorship’.  Here, ‘exhausted fathers conjure up child-killers, and young women, tired of suffering in silence, decide there’s nothing left to do but set themselves on fire.’

Each of the stories here is highly evocative; they feel like sharp scratches, or aching punches to the stomach in the power which they wield.  The historical context which fills each one is thoroughly and sensually explained and explored.  In ‘The Intoxicated Years’, for example, the section of the story which is set in 1989, begins: ‘All that summer the electricity went off for six hours at a time; government orders, because the country had no more energy, they said, though we didn’t really understand what that meant…  What would a widespread blackout be like?  Would we be left in the dark forever?  The possibility was incredible.  Stupid.  Ridiculous.  Useless adults, we thought, how useless.’  In 1992, the three young protagonists in this story make a new acquaintance.  The narrator explains: ‘Roxana never had food in the house; her empty cupboards were crisscrossed by bugs dying of hunger as they searched for nonexistent crumbs, and her fridge kept one Coca-Cola and some eggs cold.  The lack of food was good; we had promised each other to eat as little as possible.  We wanted to be light and pale like dead girls.’

In Things We Lost in the Fire, Enriquez explores the darker sides of life in Buenos Aires: drug abuse, hallucinations, homelessness, murder, illegal abortion, disability, suicide, and disappearance, to name but a few.  Each story is unsettling, but the collection is incredibly readable.  I found myself drawn to Enriquez’ descriptions.  She writes, amongst many others, the following striking phrases: ‘beside the pool where the water under the siesta sun looked silvered, as if made of wrapping paper’; a house, thought to be haunted, ‘buzzed; it buzzed like a hoarse mosquito’.

There are many chilling moments throughout.  In ‘Adela’s House’, the narrator relates: ‘I’ll never forget those afternoons.  When Adela talked, when she concentrated and her dark eyes burned, the house’s garden began to fill with shadows, and they ran, they waved to us mockingly.  When Adela sat with her back to the picture window, in the living room, I saw them dancing behind her.  I didn’t talk to her.  But Adela knew.’  In ‘An Invention of the Big-Eared Runt’, protagonist Pablo is working as a guide on a popular murder tour of Buenos Aires, when the ghost of a notorious child murderer appears to him.  Enriquez writes: ‘He studied the tour’s ten crimes in detail so he could narrate them well, with humor and suspense, and he’d never felt scared – they didn’t affect him at all.  That’s why, when he saw the apparition, he felt more surprise than terror.  It was definitely him, no doubt about it.  He was unmistakable: the large, damp eyes that looked full of tenderness but were really dark wells of idiocy.  The drab sweater on his short body, his puny shoulders, and in his hands the thin rope he’d used to demonstrate to the police, emotionless all the while, how he had tied up and strangled his victims.’

Enriquez’ style feels very Gothic, both in terms of its style and the plots of some of the stories.  Her tales build wonderfully, and there is a real claustrophobia which descends in a lot of them.  ‘Spiderweb’, for instance, begins: ‘It’s hard to breathe in the humid north, up there so close to Brazil and Paraguay, the rushing river guarded by mosquito sentinels and a sky that can turn from limpid blue to stormy black in minutes.  You start to struggle right away when you arrive, as if a brutal arm were wound around your waist and squeezing.’

Megan McDowell’s translation from the original Spanish of the stories is faultless.  It does not feel as though anything of the original has been lost in translation; the stories have an urgency, an immediacy to them.   In her translator’s note at the end of the volume, McDowell writes that in these stories, ‘Argentina’s particular history combines with an aesthetic many have tied to the gothic horror tradition of the English-speaking world.’  She goes on to say: ‘But Enriquez’s literature conforms to no genre’.  She writes of the focus upon female characters, and the way in which, throughout this collection, ‘… we get a sense of the contingency and danger of occupying a female body, though these women are not victims.’

Things We Lost in the Fire is startling and entirely memorable.  The collection as a whole provides many creepy moments, a lot of which startled me as a reader, but I could not tear myself away from it.  The stories are at once desperate and disturbing.  I, like many other readers of English, I expect, eagerly await Enriquez’ next collection.

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Three Favourites: Norah Lange, Sally Rooney, and Lauren Groff

people-at-the-roomPeople in the Room by Norah Lange
I purchased Argentinian author Norah Lange’s novella, People in the Room, after randomly coming across it during a weekly browse of the Kindle store.  Much to my dismay, I have read very little Argentinian fiction, and would like to remedy this.  Lange’s novel – which is, as far as I am aware, the only piece of her work currently available in English translation – sounded fascinating.

The introduction, written by Cesar Aira, is both insightful and interesting, despite the fact that it gave quite a lot of the story away.  I loved Lange’s writing style and its translation into English felt fluid.  I loved the way in which almost all of the characters remained unnamed, and the element of obsession was so well handled.

I found People in the Room to be unsettling and beguiling in equal measure. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and could feel the claustrophobia closing in as it went on.  The tension in the novel is almost palpable.  I’m not sure that I have ever read anything quite like People in the Room before, and it is certainly a book which will stay with me for a very long time.

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney 9780571334650
I was a little sceptical about picking up Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, due to the sheer amount of hype which it has been getting since its publication. I have been disappointed before by novels which many others have raved about, and am therefore a little wary whenever I see the same cover splashed over blogs and BookTube. However, I need not have worried.  Normal People is wonderfully perceptive, and I got a feel for its two main characters, Connell and Marianne, immediately. There is a lot of dark content here, which becomes more prominent as the novel progresses, and I cared immensely for the protagonists.

The structure which Rooney has adopted here was effective, and kept me interested throughout. I admired the fact that she focuses in such detail upon relationships, and the ways in which they can shift. There are some very topical issues which have been tackled well here. Whilst I was a little disappointed by the ending, which I felt was a little too twee to match the tone of the rest of the book, Rooney’s writing is so pitch-perfect, and her characters so real, that I could not give this anything other than a five star rating.

Normal People is incredibly immersive; beware, and only pick it up if you have a whole afternoon free to spend in its company. I read this in two sittings, as I could barely put it down, and am now incredibly excited to get to her debut, Conversations with Friends.

 

91gogy5bsxlFlorida by Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff has been one of my favourite authors for years now.  I have always been astounded by how much atmosphere she creates, and yet how succinct her writing still is.  The stories in her newest collection, Florida, have the US state at their centre, ‘its landscape, climate, history and state of mind’ are what each character and each plot revolve around.  I love collections with a centralised heart like this, and loved being able to revisit Florida without having to take another eight-hour flight.

Showcasing eleven stories in all, and coming in at less than 300 pages, Florida is a truly masterful collection.  Groff demonstrates her insight and understanding of the diverse state in which she lives, and the sense of place which she creates is always highly evocative.  In ‘Ghosts and Empties’, for example, she writes: ‘The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one.  We have few streetlights, and those I pass under make my shadow frolic; it lags behind me, gallops to my feet, gambols on ahead…  Feral cats dart underfoot, birds-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.’  In this story, we are walked through what was once a poor neighbourhood, but which is beginning to gentrify.

Groff showed me a Florida which I was largely unaware of in these stories, and which I haven’t seen with my own eyes.  Tales are set in Florida during the cool wintertime, as well as in areas which I haven’t visited – the Everglades, for instance.  The darker side of life nestles up against the bright vibrancy which tourists see.  Never is Groff’s version of the Sunshine State sugarcoated; she shows poverty, homelessness, abandonment, neglect, and death.  Throughout, she challenges perceptions, and she does this so well.

One never knows what will happen in one of Groff’s stories, and this collection shows just how strong a writer she is.  Each tale is perfectly formed, and together they provide a kaleidoscopic view of a state at once beautiful and wild.  As anyone familiar with her work will know, she uses magical realism to perfection.  Florida is a wonderful short story collection, and one which I cannot recommend enough.

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One From the Archive: ‘Kamchatka’ by Marcelo Figueras ****

First published in 2018.

Marcelo Figueras’ Kamchatka, which is set in Argentina, was the final South American book of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Kamchatka, which has been translated from its original Spanish by Frank Wynne, is a coming of age story which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Kamchatka was a novel which I have never seen reviewed on blogs or Goodreads, and was so intrigued by the storyline that I did not consider any other books set in Argentina for my challenge.  It seems to have slipped beneath the radar somewhat.  Regardless, there are many positive reviews which adorn the paperback copy of the novel.  In her review in The Times, for instance, Kate Saunders says that ‘Figueras writes with power and insight about the ways in which a child uses imagination to make sense of a terrifying and baffling reality.’  The Financial Times call it ‘brilliantly observed’ and ‘heartbreaking’.

9780802170873Kamchatka follows ten-year-old Harry, whose name is a false one he has to adopt after his family are forced to flee, calling himself after Harry Houdini, an obsession of his.  Harry, whose world is made up of make-believe and superheroes, lives in Buenos Aires during the 1976 coup d’etat.  His father leaves the family – Harry, his mother, and his younger brother, who calls himself Simon – at a petrol station on the outskirts of the city: ‘He kissed me, his stubble scratching my cheek, then climbed into the Citroen.  The car moved off along the undulating ribbon of road, a green bubble bobbing into view with every hill, getting smaller and smaller until I couldn’t see it any more.  I stood there for a long while, my game of Risk tucked under my arm.  Until my abuelo, my grandpa, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Let’s go home.”‘

Figueras uses short chapters to tell Harry’s story, and this structure works well.  We are given a myriad of memories, which are not ordered chronologically, but which help to build a full picture, both of our protagonist and the conditions in which he is living under.

Kamchatka is often profound, particularly in those instances where Figueras discusses our growth as people in the most beautiful and thoughtful ways: ‘Who I have been, who I am, who I will be are all in continual conversation, each influencing the other.  That my past and my present together determine my future sounds like a fundamental truth, but I suspect that my future joins forces with the present to do the same thing to my past.’  Figueras also talks at length about childhood, and the way in which young people view what is around them, and what they are familiar with, as the entire world: ‘When you’re a kid, the world can be bounded in a nutshell.  In geographical terms, a child’s universe is a space that comprises home, school and – possibly – the neighbourhood where your cousins or your grandparents live.  In my case, the universe sat comfortably within a small area of Flores that ran from the junction of Bayoca and Arellaneda (my house), to the Plaza Flores (my school).’

Figueras has a wonderful way of being able to interpret different occurrences, particularly with regard to the political unrest in Argentina, through a child’s eyes: ‘When the coup d’etat came, in 1976, a few days before school started, I knew straight away that things were going to get ugly.  The new president had a peaked cap and a huge moustache; you could tel from his face that he was a bad guy.’  Kamchatka is a rich and thought-provoking novel, which offers an interesting and fully-developed perspective on one of the most defining periods of recent history in Argentina.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘Kamchatka’ by Marcelo Figueras ****

Marcelo Figueras’ Kamchatka, which is set in Argentina, was the final South American book of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Kamchatka, which has been translated from its original Spanish by Frank Wynne, is a coming of age story which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Kamchatka was a novel which I have never seen reviewed on blogs or Goodreads, and was so intrigued by the storyline that I did not consider any other books set in Argentina for my challenge.  It seems to have slipped beneath the radar somewhat.  Regardless, there are many positive reviews which adorn the paperback copy of the novel.  In her review in The Times, for instance, Kate Saunders says that ‘Figueras writes with power and insight about the ways in which a child uses imagination to make sense of a terrifying and baffling reality.’  The Financial Times call it ‘brilliantly observed’ and ‘heartbreaking’.

9780802170873Kamchatka follows ten-year-old Harry, whose name is a false one he has to adopt after his family are forced to flee, calling himself after Harry Houdini, an obsession of his.  Harry, whose world is made up of make-believe and superheroes, lives in Buenos Aires during the 1976 coup d’etat.  His father leaves the family – Harry, his mother, and his younger brother, who calls himself Simon – at a petrol station on the outskirts of the city: ‘He kissed me, his stubble scratching my cheek, then climbed into the Citroen.  The car moved off along the undulating ribbon of road, a green bubble bobbing into view with every hill, getting smaller and smaller until I couldn’t see it any more.  I stood there for a long while, my game of Risk tucked under my arm.  Until my abuelo, my grandpa, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Let’s go home.”‘

Figueras uses short chapters to tell Harry’s story, and this structure works well.  We are given a myriad of memories, which are not ordered chronologically, but which help to build a full picture, both of our protagonist and the conditions in which he is living under.

Kamchatka is often profound, particularly in those instances where Figueras discusses our growth as people in the most beautiful and thoughtful ways: ‘Who I have been, who I am, who I will be are all in continual conversation, each influencing the other.  That my past and my present together determine my future sounds like a fundamental truth, but I suspect that my future joins forces with the present to do the same thing to my past.’  Figueras also talks at length about childhood, and the way in which young people view what is around them, and what they are familiar with, as the entire world: ‘When you’re a kid, the world can be bounded in a nutshell.  In geographical terms, a child’s universe is a space that comprises home, school and – possibly – the neighbourhood where your cousins or your grandparents live.  In my case, the universe sat comfortably within a small area of Flores that ran from the junction of Bayoca and Arellaneda (my house), to the Plaza Flores (my school).’

Figueras has a wonderful way of being able to interpret different occurrences, particularly with regard to the political unrest in Argentina, through a child’s eyes: ‘When the coup d’etat came, in 1976, a few days before school started, I knew straight away that things were going to get ugly.  The new president had a peaked cap and a huge moustache; you could tel from his face that he was a bad guy.’  Kamchatka is a rich and thought-provoking novel, which offers an interesting and fully-developed perspective on one of the most defining periods of recent history in Argentina.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘The Lime Tree’ by César Aira *** (Asymptote Book Club #1)

Asymptote Journal is very well-known in the literary world for being devoted to and promoting world literature in English, an endeavour that had me mesmerised from the very first time I stumbled upon their website. Very recently, they launched an incredibly interesting book club to which I could honestly not resist subscribing to (it is currently open for US and UK only as far as I’m concerned, but they will probably expand to other countries in the future) – every month you receive a newly released translated literature book from independent publishers, something which sounds right up my alley.the-lime-tree

César Aira’s The Lime Tree is the first (December’s) book club pick and a book I had heard absolutely nothing about before receiving it. Aira is an incredibly prolific Argentinian author, having published around 80 books and being one of the most lauded Latin American authors – facts which made me ashamed for not having heard of him before but very happy to have finally come into contact with his writing. According to the book’s jacket, Aira’s writing ‘is marked by extreme eccentricity and innovation, as well as an aesthetic restlessness and a playful spirit’.

The Lime Tree is a very short novella (or novelita as it is called at the back of the book – such an adorable term!) of 106 pages and yet it is so hard to describe it accurately. While not mentioned anywhere as an autobiographical work, it is evident that many elements of the author’s life have been transplanted in his narration, the place (Pringles, Argentina), age and first-person narration being some indicative features.

One of the reasons why this book is so hard to describe is probably because there is no specific plot to it. Instead, the novelita consists of the author/narrator’s thoughts, memories and reminiscences, the point of departure of which is the plethora of lime trees the narrator sees at the Plaza in his hometown, Pringles, which remind him of his father and how he used to gather the lime tree’s leaves or flowers in order to make tea which helped with his insomnia. From that point on, the narrator tells us about his family – his dark-skinned father with his supposed ‘other family’, his deformed but imposing mother and his childhood years which were shaped by the Peronist political movement.

Babies, by their very nature, are in a sense little monsters; I might have turned out to be a dwarf or to have needed spectacles […] I was human plasma, unpredictable and protean, like Peronism.

I truly enjoyed how the author managed to give so much cultural, social and political information about the time his story took place without resorting to actual history recitations or mere recounting of historical facts. Aira very skillfully intertwines his story with Argentina’s history and context (perhaps because the country’s history is so deeply embedded in the author’s personal story) that even people like me who knew nothing about Peronism prior to this book, leave enriched and satisfied.

Aira’s writing style is very pleasant to read. Perhaps due to the nature of this particular novelita the prose was a bit dense at parts and the narrator’s frequent stream-of-consciousness method might not entice all readers, but I’m sure the short length of this book will make up for its shortcomings. Although there were fragments of magical realism here, I would love to explore other works by this author where magical realism is even more prominent. Certainly, one out of 80 books of Aira’s oeuvre is nothing sort of representative, and I am more than excited to read more of his books in the near future.

How could we have changed so much, if everything was still the same? It all seemed too much the same, in fact. I felt nostalgic for time itself, which the Plaza’s spatial stories made as unattainable as the sky. I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect lime blossom, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take a hold of it, like a ripe fruit… so I set out to recover that old self.

You can also read Ali‘s and Marina Sofia‘s reviews of The Lime Tree and I hope you do give this author (and book club!) a chance if you haven’t already done so.

I’m very looking forward to January’s book club pick! 🙂