For readers who found themselves caught in the thrall of Samanta Schweblin’s trim but potent novel Fever Dream, the Man Booker International-shortlisted author is back with the equally unsettling Mouthful of Birds. Originally published as Pájaros en la boca in 2009 and newly translated by Megan McDowell, this collection comprises 20 tightly packed stories that showcase a fascination with the uncanny and, at times, the otherworldly. Throughout, Schweblin sketches out scenes and landscapes that seem to be drawn from contemporary life, but she projects them through an insistently warped lens, twisting commonplace social and familial anxieties into horrifying contortions.
Where Fever Dream explored the realization of a young mother’s worst fears to terrifying effect, Mouthful of Birds offers a spate of disturbing new visions of child-rearing gone wrong. In “On the Steppe,” one of the more memorable offerings in the book, a couple’s efforts to bring home a little one of their own takes a bloody, vicious turn, while the title story, “Mouthful of Birds,” follows a father who discovers his teenage daughter has taken to eating nothing but live birds, her mealtimes now punctuated by distressed avian shrieks:
“I remembered Sara at five years old, sitting at the table with us and fanatically devouring a squash, and I thought we would find the way to resolve this problem. But when the Sara I had in front of me smiled again, I wondered what it would be like to have a mouth full of something all feathers and feet, to swallow something warm and moving. I covered my mouth with my hand the way Silvia had done earlier, and I left Sara alone before the two untouched cups of coffee.” (35)
These are eerie scenarios designed, perhaps too self-consciously, to illustrate how quickly parental bliss may devolve into the stuff of nightmares.
Even in the stories that don’t directly concern parents and children, motifs of violence and overtones of sickening dread recur. Schweblin has a penchant for setting her stories in rural areas and focusing her attention on vulnerable and transitory figures, travelers and outsiders who find themselves in unfamiliar landscapes where the horizon disappears into darkness and the possibility of danger hangs in the air. But so, too, are her cities and towns suffused with an air of the sinister and the off-kilter, and many of them become sites of violence as well: violence against children and animals, violence as vengeance, violence as a form of power and beauty. In “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides,” a cold-blooded murder is even presented as a kind of transcendent art piece, and a crowd of aesthetes gathers to revel in the imagined profundity of the installation:
“The message takes time to sink in. Once the audience processes the words and understands their meaning, they start slowly to applaud, moved. Euphoria breaks out. He says he killed her, they say to one another. Now, that is intense, they comment. Pure poetry, shouts someone in the back. The evening’s first tears of emotion fall….
And like the sun brings light or like the artist discovers the most human truths, the curtain that had covered the creation now, slowly before the collective hunger, falls to the floor. And there is the work: violent, real, carnally alive.” (226-227)
It is a scene that exemplifies the dark imaginative capacities of Schweblin’s mind, and there is no question that this is an author with a facility for crafting provocative images and spinning out ever more inventive narrative premises. So, too, is she adept at withholding important details from the reader, escalating tension around that vacuum of information, and letting the curtain drop with a final gesture or revelation that lands like a rock plummeting into a black well.
But too often the chill one feels when reading the final lines of Schweblin’s stories is momentary and hardly bone-deep. On the whole, the individual entries in this collection are creepy enough but lack the depth and development that would make them unshakably frightening. Schweblin’s tendency to lean on eleventh-hour revelations also means that her stories don’t conclude so much as they suggest something even more ominous, and the success of this approach relies entirely on the reader’s willingness to indulge that suggestion, to expand and build upon it in his or her own mind. For readers who enjoy filling in gaps and making mental leaps on behalf of the author, there is a certain thrill to reading these stories in isolation. Others, however, may find that Schweblin's narrative strategies quickly become repetitive and predictable. Ultimately, Mouthful of Birds reads like a notebook of unsettling sketches that never quite coalesce into anything as substantial or haunting as Fever Dream.