Genre : Fiction
Date Published : January 18th, 2019
Publisher : Riverhead Books
In what is clearly becoming a pattern, I once again heard about this book in one of my classes. My professor described it as a collection of very unsettling, but beautiful short stories, and one of my classmates turned around to look at me and said, “Sara, that book is perfect for you!” And reader, she was 100% correct.
Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell, is just as beautiful as it is unsettling, with each and every of the 20 stories in the collection coming to a sudden end that made me exclaim, “Wait, what? But what happened?” And it’s not that I didn’t understand the stories (although a lot of them are definitely mind-bending), but it’s more that Schweblin leaves you wondering the fates of the characters in almost every story. Beyond that, she surrounds you in a reality that feels like the world we live in, but then drops you into something you never would have expected, and you come out on the other side with a lot to think about.
The stories in the collection have a common thread of showing the disturbance of a natural reality. Schweblin takes seemingly normal topics – parent-child relationships, traveling, pregnancy, dreams – and doesn’t so much as twist them into surprising narratives, but instead turns them completely inside out. Nothing is what it seems in this collection, and the reader, as well as the characters, are left to struggle with that and figure out a world that isn’t just confusing and baffling, but that can also be cruel.
It’s always hard for me to choose a favorite story out of a whole collection, but the ones that stood out in Mouthful of Birds were The Merman – the merman that is featured has a pompadour, some killer abs, loves eating mints, and says ridiculous things like “Stop suffering, bay, no one’s going to hurt you anymore”; Headlights – the first story of the collection that follows a jilted bride left by the roadside where she meets other women who have also been left behind, along with some other very eery, very disconcerting beings that never get faces to match their voices; and the titular story Mouthful of Birds, which, well… is exactly what it sounds like. But even with that information beforehand, you still won’t be prepared to read about a girl who eats birds.
“When she reaches the road, Felicity understands her fate. He has not waited for her, and, if the past were a tangible thing, she thinks she can still see the weak reddish glow of the car’s taillights fading on the horizon.”Headlights, page 1
What I loved most about the stories was how Schweblin didn’t waste any time trying to explain anything to the reader. You get dropped into each story immediately, with no time to catch up to what is already happening in the first sentence. Sometimes even the setting is unclear, as well as the relationships of the characters to each other. It’s like you are dropped into a story that has been in motion years before you flipped to the page. Again, everything feels unsettling, like when you wake up from a nap and need to take a few seconds to reorient yourself to where you are, and sometimes even who you are.
There are a few misses in the collection, but that’s to be expected when there are 20 stories in total. Overall, Schweblin creates a universe out of her stories, one that is connected by characters who seem to talk themselves out of reality and into a new – and pretty disturbing – reality. Some of the stories are a little too violent and dark for my taste (and be warned, some of them are pretty violent), but the majority of them are still lodged in my mind days after reading them for the first time, and that is what was so impressive about the collection – Schweblin doesn’t spoon feed you solutions or explanations to her stories, you have to navigate them on your own, even if they kind of creep you out along the way. The only thing I can think to compare the feeling of reading Schweblin’s stories to is when you’re having a nightmare. But I mean that in a good way, if that can even make sense.
7.5 Birds out of 10.