Mouthful of Birds review: Eerie, disconcerting but beautiful

Samanta Schweblin’s collection of stories cleverly distorts everyday domestic situations

Mouthful of Birds
Mouthful of Birds
Author: Samanta Schweblin Translated by Megan McDowell
ISBN-13: 9781786074560
Publisher: Oneworld
Guideline Price: £12.99

The cover of Mouthful of Birds is at once beautiful and rather disconcerting. Its carpet of butterflies is stunningly eye-catching, but there's nevertheless something off about it – the butterflies shift in and out of focus, as does the typography, making it seem like they're emerging from the page, although not quite in the way you'd expect. And if you look too hard, the butterflies start to seem too shiny, the colours too intense – there's something almost threatening about the metallic sheen to their wings.

A similar sense of unease is reproduced throughout this collection of 20 stories by the acclaimed Argentine author Samanta Schweblin, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell. Anyone who read and was captivated by Schweblin's eerie novella Fever Dream, published last year, will relish this earlier volume, which has many of the same strange, disturbing preoccupations. The most important of these are violence – especially against animals – and anxiety about parenthood. The two are often linked, as in the title story about a teenager whose new diet consists exclusively of live birds. Here, the assumption of unconditional parental love is challenged after mother and father see their young daughter newly flushed with health, blood smeared over her face and hands after a feathery meal: "She smiled sheepishly. Her gigantic mouth arched and opened, and her red teeth made me jump to my feet. I ran to the bathroom, locked the door, and vomited into the toilet". Moments like these abound in Mouthful of Birds, which repeatedly turns everyday domestic situations into living nightmares.

Children as animals

In one of the briefest but most powerful stories, Butterflies, a man waiting outside the school gates for his daughter absentmindedly crushes the wings of a butterfly between his fingers. When the bell rings to signal the end of school, instead of children a swarm of butterflies emerges. As they disperse, the man is left alone, daughterless, beginning to regret his unthinking act of violence.

We also find children disguised as animals in On the Steppe, an unsettling tale about the gulf between imagined parental bliss and the more difficult reality of raising children. A couple spend their days hunting a wild, nameless something that they yearn for desperately but have never seen. When they finally encounter one in the home of another couple, it violently attacks the husband, Pol, prompting him to grab his wife and flee. As they speed away in the car, his wife thinks: "We should slow down. We could die if an animal crossed in front of us. Then I think that one of them could also cross – and it could be ours. But Pol speeds up even more, as if, in the terror his frenzied eyes belie, he were counting on precisely that."


Urgent and compelling

Schweblin's characters often undergo strange bodily metamorphoses, as in Preserves, which is perhaps the most beautifully crafted tale in this collection. Here a woman becomes pregnant sooner than she and her partner had hoped; they find a way to slowly reverse her three months of pregnancy, her body shrinking until, on the day corresponding to the date of conception, she is able to spit out "something small, the size of an almond" – their daughter – and preserve her in a jar until the time is right. In The Size of Things, the same metamorphosis plays out at a later stage in life: adult Enrique moves into his local toyshop, only to live out his childhood back-to-front, reverse-developing from a man into an infant without anyone seeming to notice.

While at least four or five of the stories in Mouthful of Birds are utterly compelling, a few are so economical with words that they end up falling flat. In the first story, Headlights, the clever exploration of female competition and male solidarity is undermined by voices that should be threatening and sinister but instead are so discordant as to sound unconvincing. That said, the writing, in Megan McDowell's practised hands, is for the most part urgent and suspenseful, and will no doubt send a shiver up your spine as you next contemplate your domestic relationships, both human and non-human. Throughout, there is a pervasive sense of entrapment, but also of things held in precarious balance, of scales threatening to tip. Like its butterfly-carpeted jacket design, Mouthful of Birds has an eerie, disconcerting beauty that will preoccupy you long after you put it down.
Ellen Jones is a researcher and translator. Her translation of Rodrigo Fuentes's Trout, Belly Up is published by Charco Press. She has been criticism editor at Asymptote since 2014