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As Halloween hype intensifies throughout October, fiction fans are blessed with a cornucopia of spine-tingling titles, whether its Mary Shelley’s monster masterpiece, Stephen King’s boundless terrors, Daisy Johnson’s paranormal gems or countless eerie offerings from other authors. But sometimes the most uneasy feelings can be elicited by scenarios that don’t involve anything out of the ordinary. In three Man Booker International Prize-nominated works, including the novel “Little Eyes” and the short story collection “Mouthful of Birds,” the Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin has straddled a subtly supernatural line at times, but her newest collection may be her most unsettling, and there is nothing unnatural about it.
The spectacular and strange stories in “Seven Empty Houses,” translated by Schweblin’s longtime English translator Megan McDowell, pertain to nothing more mysterious than mistaken perceptions, debilitating grief and the often-torturous passage of time. Bizarre behavior abounds, like a woman burying a stolen sugar bowl in her backyard or another repeatedly throwing her dead son’s clothes over the neighbor’s fence, but the actions always derive from humanity that is simply fragile, flawed or lost.
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Each story centers on a relationship where one of the parties is a woman at sea within her own mind, acting on convictions both founded and false. These characters are not intentionally malevolent, yet they cause — and carry — real pain. Schweblin is particularly focused on the anguish that arises from disruptions in the natural order of things, like when a child dies before their parents.
In “None of That,” a daughter resignedly accompanies her mother, who “is not well,” on their peculiar pastime: visiting other people’s houses so her mother can amend them, by moving a sprinkler, removing unsuitable flowers and the like. This time her mother crosses “a big line,” however, sneaking into a luxurious house while its owner is distracted by trying to help her. The daughter finally gets her mother to leave, but she doesn’t go empty-handed, claiming an unexceptional memento that is actually priceless.
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In “My Parents and My Children,” police join the search for two kids who were last seen with their grandparents, which wouldn’t normally cause concern except that all four seem to have taken off their clothes. The children’s mother is despondent, but her ex-husband assures her that it is more innocent than lurid, that his aging parents may be “sick” but they’re harmless.
The precarious lives of children are even more starkly highlighted in “An Unlucky Man,” in which 3-year-old Abi drinks bleach on her sister’s eighth birthday. Speeding to the hospital, the birthday girl is made to remove her underwear so her father can wave them out the car window, a white flag as he wends through traffic. Alone in the waiting room, knees pressed “together tightly,” a man sits down and offers her ice cream. After initially balking because he’s a stranger, the birthday girl reveals her predicament, and he offers to help. The tension increases steadily before an exhilaratingly unexpected turn in a revelatory concluding sentence.
Schweblin’s ability to upend readers’ emotional stability with a single phrase is never better displayed than in the collection’s standout, “Breath From the Depths,” a wrenching depiction of grief and mental decline. Lola, married for 57 years, has never been able to move past the long-ago loss of her young son. “She wanted to die so badly, she’d wanted it for so many years, and yet her body just went on deteriorating, more than she would have thought possible. A deterioration that led nowhere.” When a single mom and her boy move in next door, Lola imagines herself increasingly under attack, both from the new neighbors and from her husband’s friendliness toward them. This inability to distinguish reality from paranoia accelerates after a robbery in the neighborhood, with devastating consequences.
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Lola and several other characters throughout the collection believe that moving forward — whether toward contentment, acceptance or the next life — requires organizing their affairs. For Lola, this settling of accounts is quite literal, as she obsessively classifies and boxes up everything in the house, trying to get rid of the physical possessions that she sees as standing between herself and death.
Sometimes the barrier to actualization is as simple as a layer of clothing, as with a woman who leaves an argument with her husband wearing only her bathrobe and finds an “extraordinary state of alertness, [that] frees me from any kind of judgment.” Less is not more for everyone, however. One woman sells her wedding ring in a failed attempt to buy happiness, but then realizes people “were there to care for their things, and in exchange those things sustained them.”
The collection, which is a finalist for the National Book Award for translated literature, is made more disturbing by all the things Schweblin doesn’t clarify, by the common threads that are not tied-off with pretty bows, by the unanswered questions that allow readers to relate the fates of the book’s characters to those of their own parents, spouses, friends or neighbors. The most disquieting realization of all is perhaps the fact that any of these scenarios could arrive at any moment, not only during the spookiest time of the year.
Cory Oldweiler’s writing has appeared in the Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Boston Globe.
By Samanta Schweblin; translated by Megan McDowell
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