Schweblin’s first book, Fever Dream, had me, well, feverish when I first read it a couple of years back. It sits unabashedly as one of my top-rated novellas. The urgency, atmosphere and nightmarish sweats are piled in with distinct brevity, leaving my jaw on the floor. It’s no surprise it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Mouthful Of Birds is Schweblin’s hotly-anticipated collection of short stories and many, like myself, could not wait to get our hands on it.
Schweblin is a master of withholding. Nothing is neatly packaged, and she has an uncanny way of scratching away at you lightly. You’ll be haemorrhaging nightmares before you realise what she’s done. The effect of this is more pertinent in her collection of twenty stories; the cumulative impact is not really felt until you turn the final page and wake up in the night three days later, stuck on an uncomfortable feeling she’s planted (and yup, this totally happened to me).
As the title hints at, there is an interwoven theme of animals and humans. Animals that normally get a sweet and gentle write-up become fair game for gruesome endings. In ‘The Test’, a man seeking to enter the ruthless world of gang-membership, if only to survive himself, is taken through the prerequisite initiation task: killing a dog. A task he ultimately fails at. The story ends with the earlier warning from a peripheral character ringing loudly in my mind when the man is left to face the consequences of his actions:
“You just don’t do that. The dogs will remember you, and later they’ll take their revenge. They know, they know. Understand?”
And yes, in the title story, a teenage girl’s predilection for devouring small birds causes more than discomfort in her parents already ruptured relationship. This story also follows another strong theme, the relationship between parents and their children, something over half the stories focus on. The thread between feminist themes and motherhood that Fever Dream centred on is continued in a few of these stories too. ‘Preserves’ turns the pregnancy journey on its head, undercutting the idea of what is natural, and highlighting the (let’s face it) sometimes bizarre experience of being pregnant and giving birth that isn’t always socially acceptable to discuss.
One of my favourite stories is, ‘Headlights’, which opens the collection and again draws strongly from a feminist standpoint. A jilted bride is left stranded by her new-husband at an abandoned roadside pit-stop after she has asked to stop and use the toilet (a point that made me laugh as I think we all, as women, have had our more frequent need to pee mocked at least once by our male counterparts, no?). She meets an older woman, left under similar circumstances, and it soon becomes apparent that the field behind the restroom is filled with the roar of other women, all abandoned. All angry. The bride and her companions escape only when they convince another woman being dropped off to stay in the vehicle. They manage to get her husband to exit, and taking over the car, they abandon the man and drive off into the night. Passing cars travelling in the direction they just left, our initial protagonist feels a glimmer of hope, that the other women will be rescued:
‘“They changed their minds,” says Felicity. “It’s them, they’re coming back for us!”
“No,” says Nene.
She lights a cigarette and then, exhaling smoke, she adds:
“It’s them, yes. But they’re coming back for him.”’
The collection comes full circle, with the lowered societal status of women front and centre once more in ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’. A man kills his wife violently and stuffs her in a suitcase, wheeling it to the home of his wealthy psychiatrist who is in the midst of a grand party. Instead of the horror we expect, the man is exalted as a genius of the art world. The suitcase is opened and the bloody remains of his wife laid bare in a garage which is swiftly converted into a makeshift gallery. The elite queue up to glimpse the masterpiece, as the media snap photos of the scene and the ‘artist’. The corrupt psychiatrist and the curator friend he has roped into the process cry out: “Horror and beauty! What a combination.” A powerful commentary on the ways the trauma and violation of women’s bodies are too often made a spectacle.
Schweblin’s characters almost always play a passive role, never being the root cause of the events happening to and around them. Nobody behaves in ways we might deem ‘normal’ and we are often left without explanations, perplexed by the realities she creates that challenge as well as question societal norms.
As a complete collection, this was exceptionally and thematically polished, with lots of threads tying, knotting, and tangling the stories together. As I found with Fever Dream, it has taken some distance to really reflect on what I’ve read and taken away from some of these. I will admit that for at least a few of them, I have taken away nothing. Despite being impeccably written, I can honestly say some of this collection failed to hit the mark I was hoping for. Although I enjoyed the book as a whole, some didn’t quite meet the pulsating atmospheric quality I found in Fever Dream. Stories such as ‘The Merman’, ‘The Digger’ and ‘A Great Effort’ felt more like sketches and proposals of bigger stories, that Schweblin might come back to at a later date to thrash it out with.
But is it fair to only hold a writer accountable to the one piece of work you’ve become obsessed with? I think not. And I will definitely be eagerly anticipating Schweblin’s next piece of dark, psychologically perplexing, magic.
Mouthful of Birds
By Samanta Schweblin
240 pages. 2019.