September 8, 2017KR Reviews

On Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

New York, NY: Hogarth Press, 2016. 202 pages. $24.00.

An abandoned house brims with shelves holding fingernails and teeth. A demonic idol is borne on a mattress through city streets. An emaciated, nude boy lies chained in a neighbor’s courtyard. In the middle of the night, invisible men pound on the shutters of a country hotel. These ghostly images flicker out of Mariana Enriquez’s stories, her characters witnessing atrocities or their shadows or afterimages. All these tales are told from a woman’s point of view, often a young one, and they seem to be able to hold out against the horror that lures them for only so long. Eventually, Enriquez’s girls and women walk voluntarily towards what they least want to see. They open the door, open the cabinet, cross the wall.

The psychic interiority of broaching one’s own darkness is the mainstay of horror fiction, the genre to which these stories clearly belong. And yet Enriquez shifts this interiority outward into a landscape made ghastly by political and economic forces. Children living on the street, a girl dying on the sidewalk after an illegal abortion, prisoners tortured at a detention center, sit in wait for those who would notice them, making broad daylight just as unnerving as midnight. In “The Dirty Kid,” a begging child ostentatiously shakes the hand of subway passengers, soiling them deliberately. Similarly, in the title story, a hideously burned beggar kisses the cheeks of commuters, taking pleasure in their discomfort with her. Violence flaunts itself, intruding on everyday life. While most shudder away, Enriquez’s women are drawn to it, as if to see what they can do with it.

Enriquez spent her childhood in Argentina during the years of the infamous Dirty War, which ended when she was ten. Tens of thousands were tortured, killed, or “disappeared” under circumstances later nullified with a blanket amnesty. Clearly these acts, and the concomitant economic instability and corruption, provide the earth for Enriquez’s tales. She also comes from a tradition of Argentinian fabulists, beginning with the revered Jorge Luis Borges. Borges and his friends—the writers Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo—were so fond of horror that they co-edited several editions of an anthology of macabre stories. The blend of horror, fantasy, crime, and cruelty has a particular Argentine pedigree. This is not fantasy divorced from reality, but a keener perception of the ills that we wade through.

The protagonists in Enriquez’s stories are mostly aware of their privilege, if it’s a privilege to have a place to live, food to eat, a face that’s not grotesquely disfigured. The proximity of others without these basic amenities creates a fragility in the better-off. It’s not that her protagonists fear a slide into poverty, but that the niceness of their lives is so clearly perched on evil filth. This seems very different from the American horror trope, which often involves the comeuppance of someone blithely heedless of what lies beneath—the burial ground under the housing development, or the bland cheerleader unsuspecting of the slasher’s claws. In Enriquez’s world, no one is adequately shielded. The coddled suburbanite does not exist. Her narrators have to shrug past almost unbearable sights as part of their everyday routines. Thus the act of looking takes on enormous importance. These women have a choice in what they notice and what they flinch away from. The consequences are dire, but there’s nevertheless a sense of agency in directing one’s gaze.

In “Under the Black Water,” a district attorney pursuing a witness ventures into a slum that even her cab driver won’t enter. He leaves her alone, and she makes her way on foot to what is considered the most polluted river in the world. “Argentina had taken the river winding around its capital,” the woman observes, “which could have made for a beautiful day trip, and polluted it almost arbitrarily, practically for the fun of it.” If the foul water itself weren’t bad enough, she learns that police have murdered kids by throwing them off a bridge into it. And then, of course, it’s even worse than that: a mutant child, rotting meat, a thing with gray arms, all vivid and inexplicable. The district attorney could have stayed in the car, or stayed in her office, behind brick and glass. Instead she chooses to see for herself this diabolical landscape.

Some of Enriquez’s women resurface from such experiences. Most don’t. But they project bravery as well as outrage at the awful muck they’ve dipped into. In “Spiderweb,” a woman stuck in an abusive marriage takes a trip across the border into Paraguay. There both the fierceness of the military and the untamed jungle combine into a ghostly trap, where the turn into the paranormal leaves the wife with some unexpected options. The narrative too takes a sudden jolt, as the finely hewn realism reveals filaments of deeper and more mysterious origin. The title story almost takes up where “Spiderweb” left off, with women protesting domestic violence with a violence of their own. Silvina, the protagonist of “Things We Lost in the Fire,” is not yet all the way committed to the protest movement. The story ends with a lingering look towards her exemplary act of violence, which must soon follow. That pause before the inevitable is the space of fabulist fiction, torqueing open the rigid rules of reality to create a gap of possibility.

The immense pleasure of Enriquez’s fiction is the conclusiveness of her ambiguity. We don’t know who has taken away a vanished girl, or murdered a child, or consumed a husband. They simply had to go. The world demands their sacrifice. We don’t know what the awful spectre is, gray and dripping, that sits on the bed with its bloody teeth. But we know that it is there through an inescapable logic, an intense awareness of the world and all its misery.

Angela Woodward is the author of the novels Natural Wonders (FC2, 2016) and End of the Fire Cult (Ravenna Press, 2010), and the collections Origins and Other Stories (Dzanc, 2016) and The Human Mind (Ravenna, 2007).