I remember reading Cath Crowley’s quote, “We are the books we read the things we love.” Naturally, I questioned who I was. I’m a reader of all things gothic, of fantasy, of heart-breaking trauma – so, what does that make me?
This paper focuses on discovering whether the things we read make us who we are, or whether there is something more at play - does our subconscious shine light on the correlation between what we read and who we become? Do our favourite dark and twisted books say more about ourselves or the landscape we find ourselves in? Let’s dive deeper.
In Lit Hub’s article, “How Do the Books We Read Change Our Brains?” Gregory Berns quotes Stephen King, King having mentioned that William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is an influential piece of fiction that he met when he was twelve years old. King said that the novel was, “The first book with hands – strong ones that reached out of the pages and seized me by the throat.” Is this telling of King’s writing? Well, if you’ve read Lord of the Flies, I think the influence in King’s writing seems apparent.
Exploring your mind’s article on “We Are What We Eat, But We Are Also The Books We Read” states that:‘Deep Reading’ is a ‘delicate, slow process whereby we immerse ourselves completely in what we’re reading. No hurry, no external pressure. It is this exceptional ability to “become one” with the book by capturing the richness of the text. When decoding words does something to us on a sensory and emotional level.’
Furthermore, the article goes on to say that it is through the activity of deep reading that readers can locate and understand the details hidden in the text. Experts on the topic state that deep reading begins a process in the reader’s brain – it begins to synchronize with the brain centers that are responsible for speech, vision, and hearing.
I have always been a deep reader, and this trait was further personified when I went to University and studied English Literature. I have always believed that writers hide little pieces of themselves and their worlds in everything they write, therefore, I have always wanted to locate these little pieces for myself.
Jean Luc Godard once said, “Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”
In Mariana Enriquez’s collection of Short Stories, Things We Lost in The Fire, I found much more than I went looking for. This collection takes the reader on a turbulent journey across the Argentinian landscape shrouded in political darkness.
Here is my review of the collection which haunts me, weeks after reading it.
Things We Lost in The Fire by Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell (Hogarth Press, 2017)
Set in Argentina, Mariana Enriquez’s collection of short stories, Things We Lost in the Fire, has a sinister beauty. Its twelve short stories intertwine black magic with brutal political murders and disturbing “disappearances”. Here, we find a serial killer who is just a few years older than the babies and children he hunts, restless ghosts of political activists who were buried in cement. There are human sacrifices to the Saint of Death, a girl who pulls out her fingernails with her teeth, a boy-turned-demon who sinks his claws into a cat and women who become self-mutilators and set themselves on fire to protest against widespread gender-based violence. In an interview with the Johannesburg Review of Books, Enriquez explained that, although the military dictatorship in Argentina was violent, it was carried out in a secretive manner. This violence was not portrayed through open fire in streets, but rather through the kidnapping of people who were never seen again and referred to as the disappeared. Thus, this became the root of fear; as there was something horrible happening beneath the surface, yet the surface remained untouched.
Moreover, Enriquez uses supernatural elements as a metaphor for the darkness of the brutal civil repression that ran from 1976 through 1983. This collection draws attention to groups that society prefers to forget (homeless street children) and those whose losses will not allow them to forget (the burnt women and the ghosts of murdered activists). It also further dramatizes the scenes of being terrorized, both by the state and other societal horrors, such as drugs and extreme poverty. Written in hypnotic prose, which gives a sense of charm to the grotesque, the reader is unwittingly drawn toward the exploration of what happens when dark desires roam unbridled.
While many of the stories begin in a ‘normal’ setting, they slowly begin to flirt with the supernatural or hint at strange coincidences that cannot be ignored. In “Adela’s House”, a young girl, her brother, and their strange one-armed neighbor move from watching horror movies to becoming obsessed with an abandoned house with shelves full of jars of fingernails and teeth. “At first I didn’t know what I was looking at. They were tiny objects, yellowish white and semicircular. Some were rounded, others sharper. I didn’t want to touch them.” The house buzzes and a girl screams. Only two make it out.
Other stories in this collection run towards the outstretched embrace of horror with delight, which makes it easy to be blanketed by the tragedy and haunting atmosphere Enriquez creates. In “The Intoxicated Years”, girls under the influence of acid give in to their dark desires of wanting their friend’s boyfriend gone. “Standing above him, we circled the punk boyfriend. Lying on the ground with his eyes half-closed and his chest covered in blood, he seemed insignificant. He didn’t move. Paula slid her knife into her jeans pocket; it was practically a toy, a little knife for spreading jam on bread. “We’re not going to need it,” she said.”
Moreover, Enriquez not only writes of the supernatural in the conventional sense but also across these ghostly plains, where the people are just as haunting. This is perfectly seen in “Under the Black Water”; “She tried to stop her but the woman murmured something about the barges and the dark depths of the water, where the house was, and she pushed Marina away from her with a head butt right when the people in the procession began to shout “yo, yo, yo,” and the thing they were carrying on the bed moved a little, enough for one of its gray arms to fall over the side of the bed. It was like the arm of a very sick person and Marina remembered the fingers in her dream, the fingers falling from the rotten hand, and only then did she start running away with her gun drawn.”
“Under the Black Water” is representative of both the dark history of Argentina and its polluted present. “Argentina had taken the river winding around its capital, which could have made for a beautiful day trip, and polluted it almost arbitrarily, practically for the fun of it,” thinks a district attorney whose duties take her into a dangerous slum that even taxi drivers won’t visit. The pollution has contaminated the people of the slum too, spawning children with “horrible skin eruptions that ate away at their legs and arms. And some of them had been born with deformities. Extra arms (sometimes up to four), noses wide like felines, eyes blind and set close to their temples.”
Violence and peril are constant companions in the collection. For instance, in “The Dirty Kid,” a child is found decapitated, leaving a young woman to wonder if the victim is the same homeless boy that she cared for one evening after his drug-addicted mother failed to return home. Disappearances appear mainstream; in “The Intoxicated Years”, a girl steps off a bus and disappears into a park; in “Spiderweb”, a mobile home with an old woman inside, is stolen.
The hypnotic sense of fear and gore compels the reader to lurch between reality and magical realism, where the supernatural gives off its shadowy presence. Touch plays a significant part in the collection, and I think the breaking down of these physical barriers between characters is also representative of Enriquez allowing the supernatural and horror to break through, into real life. For instance, in “Adela’s House”, the one-armed girl touches people with her stump; in “The Dirty Kid”, an unwashed and smelly boy shakes hands with passengers on a train.
In the title story, “Things We Lost in the Fire” a girl who has been badly burned by her husband rides the subway telling herstory. “Her method was audacious: she got on the train, and if there weren’t many passengers, if almost everyone had a seat, she greeted each of them with a kiss on the cheek. Some turned their faces away in disgust, even with a muffled shriek; others accepted the kiss and felt good about themselves; some just let the revulsion raise the hair on their arms, and if she saw this, in summer when people’s skin was bare, she’d caress the scared little hairs with her grubby fingers and smile with her mouth that was a slash. Some people even got off the train if they saw her get on. They already knew her routine and wanted to avoid the kiss from that horrible face.”
As more men begin to burn their wives and girlfriends, the subway girl becomes the symbol of a movement that grows like wildfire. “Burnings are the work of men. They have always burned us. Now we were burning ourselves. But we’re not going to die; we’re going to flaunt our scars.” Perhaps one of the most vivid scenes comes from this story: “The woman entered the fire as if it were a swimming pool; she dove in, ready to sink. There was no doubt she did it of her own will. A superstitious or provoked will, but her own. She burned for barely twenty seconds. The two women in asbestos suits dragged her out of the flames and carried her at a run to the hospital. Silvina stopped filming before the building came into view. That night she put the video online.
The stories have a depth of compassion for those who are frightened and lost; the dark sides of reality that often lie forgotten, until they are exposed.
Enriquez writes about her characters, who are mostly women, with a sense of equality. Her women do not need to be viewed through the lens of being good. Instead, she allows them to also be villains, to be hard and vicious, threatening territory which has often been reserved for men.
These stories are told mostly from a woman’s point of view, each one keeping her distance from the lure of horror for as long as she can, before willingly giving into it, walking into the heart of darkness. The final lines of “The Neighbor’s Courtyard” sums this up perfectly: “Paula wanted to run, but her legs were heavy as if in a nightmare. Her body refused to turn around; something was holding her there in the bedroom doorway. But she wasn’t dreaming. You don’t feel pain in dreams.”
The voices in Things We Lost in the Fire ring loud and clear, so much so that they feel spoken. This makes these twelve stories come to life as they represent a gothic portrayal of a country trying to move away from the memory of horrific trauma while new trauma lurks around corners and hides in shadows. Some readers may find it an uncomfortable read at times – because of the unknown and the things that you’re not sure you understand … until you do.
Are we truly the books we read? Or do we become these books because they reflect the harrowing realities that come to life between pages?
I don’t know how to answer either of those questions – except to say that the books that linger beneath my skin, the books that wrap themselves uncomfortably around my spine and infiltrate my dreams? Those books are worth reading, irrespective of what they make me.
What’s your current favorite read?
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