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.
The 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.