Magical realism’s back! Samanta Schweblin’s debut short story collection, Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell, presents snapshots of the bizarre, strange, and thought provoking. From the outset, its obvious she shares more than just a nationality with that literary saint of speculative, Jorge Luis Borges. Schweblin amplifies core human dilemmas through a filter of weird, strangeness, and fear.
The stories collected have no continuity other than a shared sense of bizarreness. The title story resonates more than any other. “Mouthful of Birds” (the story) concerns a parent who cannot understand his child’s proclivity to eat birds. Raw and alive. Gross, right? Not as gross as a man who murders his wife and watches his psychiatrist turn the corpse into an art installation, which happens in “The Heavy Suitcases of Benavides.” However, these stories have more to them than simple gross-out factor. Non-sequitur ideas and harebrained notions lie at the heart of every story. Many of them involve twist ending – one that doesn’t suck. For example, “The Test” sees a hitman who is asked to beat a dog to death, set to a pack of dogs as justification for surprisingly explicit violence toward the dog shown earlier. Now seems like as good a time as any to warn sensitive readers that this collection has tons of animal violence. Don’t mistake these short stories for thrillers, though. The violence behind these stories gets in under your skin and often comes off as a habit of the narrator. This unsettling creepiness underscores the questions being asked by this short story collection.
And those questions are? Well… They’re questions of everyday life. For all the frequent detours, the collection still manages to cover slices of everyday life, usually with low-key settings and ambiguous narrators. The collection gets a little stale after the umpteenth nameless character, but most of these stories ride a wave of shock value established early on. Occasionally, the story ends on a note that feels like a letdown after a dynamic beginning, but when viewed as a whole, it only emphasizes the normalness of everyday oddities.
Mouthful of Birds paints mad pictures with beautiful language and strange images. However, the stories do tend run into one another, and employ the same methods with remarkable frequency. The repetition does bring uniformity to a brief and startling collection that’s well worth the read.
Three stars out of five.
Page count: 145
Favorite quote: “He wishes, in the small man, for a kind of discovery: the ancestral pleasure of knowing oneself a creator, anxiety contained.”