Review: Mouthful of Birds, Samanta Schweblin

It’s been a while since I’ve read anything as creepy, compelling and utterly bizarre as Samanta Schweblin’s collection of short stories, Mouthful of Birds. From the titular story about a father who discovers his daughter’s compulsion to eat live birds, to stories about fanatical hair-plucking women and the lengths a couple will go to get a child (I think), reading Schweblin’s stories was such an unsettling experience, I had to limit myself to one story a day.

Eerie and compact, Schweblin’s stories take you to the most unexpected places where the surreal is a way of life. It’s recognisably planet earth – specifically, Argentina – but it’s somehow a twisted, darker version of the familiar. Her characters are calm and distant (mostly), seemingly accepting of the way their worlds are blended with the mundane and the magical.

In fact, what most surprised me about the stories is a sense of detachment from the reader and the characters, and between the characters and their situations. A man has murdered his wife and hid her body in a suitcase? This is art and everyone is fine. A man is trapped at a railway station in the middle of nowhere? This has happened before and is accepted. I felt like the characters occupying Schweblin’s world were stuck, somehow, in this strange order of things, and their acceptance is what frightened me the most.

What I love about Schweblin’s prose is their sparseness. She is so slick and simple with the words she chooses that it can be deceiving. Blink and you’ll miss something utterly uncanny and strange in the middle of an otherwise average paragraph. It’s this economical way with words that I will definitely pay attention to in my own work – thinking about how Schweblin says a lot through the gaps and spaces in her writing.

Finally, there is something wholly unsatisfying about Schweblin’s short stories. Nothing is explained, more often than not there is no real resolution. Again, I feel this is something really important to take into my own writing. Does a short story need a definitive ending or should it just be a ripple in the water, nothing more than a glimpse into a strange world and a strange life? In more ways than one, Mouthful of Birds has given me food for thought.

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