I sometimes get intimidated by book reviews I must write. This is one of those times.
The intimidation usually arises because I love the book and have a lot to say but don’t know how to articulate my thoughts, such as now. I had lots to say when I completed this book but didn’t know how to make it all coherent. But the short of it is that this book is great and I highly recommend it.
Quick summary and My thoughts:
Things We Lost in the Fire is a book of short stories by Argentine journalist Mariana Enriquez. It was translated by Megan McDowell and published in the U.S. earlier this year by Hogarth Press. It’s the first book of short stories I’ve ever read and I’m glad that I had such a positive experience with it, which I didn’t expect because I thought I would be unsatisfied with the length. I wasn’t, but I wouldn’t mind reading an expanded version of some of the stories to know what the characters do next.
The stories are unsettling, to say the least, and are described as macabre, which is an apt word for them. I learned of this book when Danielle at Books, Vertigo, and Tea reviewed it and I added it to my TBR because of how disturbing she said the stories are. I was curious and decided to experience them myself. Now that I have, I agree with Danielle.
The stories are all set in Argentina and touch on a variety of topics such as mental illness, drug abuse, gender and sexuality, relationships, etc; but the political and sociological climate of Argentina are constant themes throughout. They aren’t often in the forefront of the story, but they are mentioned and are sometimes strong motivators for the characters.
As I read, I developed a wariness about the stories. It became obvious that its harrowing aspects were included to shock the reader and grab her attention. I didn’t mind this, but the more I read, the more I got used to expecting something shocking at a certain point in the stories. Sometimes what occurs is something unexpected and haunting; other times, it’s frightening and deeply disturbing. As such, about halfway through the book, I would only read it during the day because I was a little scared (I get scared easily).
Though I highly recommend this collection and have recommended it to a few people interested in reading translated books, I warn that it might not meet everyone’s taste. The story might be too dark for some readers and others might be turned off by the lack of strong development in a few characters. However, the collection is worth the read for its riveting and insightful, though dark, stories.
Of the 12 stories, my favorites are:
“The Intoxicated Years,” which is about a group of girls on the path to self-destruction as they rebel against their parents and other expectations. Glimpses of the political climate and state of government in Argentina at that time is seen in this.
“An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt,” about a man who sees the ghost of a sociopath while at work. I googled the Big-Eared Runt, Cayetano Santos Godino, and realized he’s a real dude. I guess because of the horror aspect of the stories, I expected it all to be fiction when I started reading.
“Green Red Orange,” about a guy who isolates himself from his mother and girlfriend and communicates only online in chat rooms. I like the last section of this story and how it ends. I see it as a critique of our overuse and dependency on technology.
“Things We Lost in the Fire,” which is my favorite of all. I like it more every time I think of it. It’s about women protesting physical abuse by burning themselves. I like the story because of the protagonist’s unique position as part of the protests yet not and having the choice to walk away from it all, yet not because mother and other women managing the protests have already decided what will be done to her. To me, the story touches on how older generations foist their expectations and wants on younger generations because though the protagonist helps with the protests, I don’t think she’s committed to it like her mother and the other women.
“The Dirty Kid,” which is about a woman living alone in a seedy part of town who becomes obsessed with the kid of a homeless, drug-addicted woman, isn’t a favorite, but I’m mentioning it here because the story reminded me of The Song of Kali by Dan Simmons, which is also a dark, unsettling read.
Five stars, of course. This one will keep you on edge and your eyes glued to its pages and have you still thinking about it long after you’re done.