'Things We Lost in the Fire' haunts and critiques in equal measure

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 - 1:37pm

Mariana Enriquez begins her debut short story collection with a dirty kid. The kid lives with his mother on a sidewalk in Constitución, a poor, crime-filled neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and he moves sullenly in and out of these first pages, crossing paths with the story’s narrator a few times before the day of his ominous disappearance. This is a horror story layered with a deeper meaning, a message about the invisible walls between the poor and the privileged, and the union that it finds here between real social conditions and surreal presences sets the tone for the eleven dark stories that follow it.

Enriquez titled her debut collection after the final story, “Things We Lost in the Fire,” which tells of women setting themselves on fire as a protest against domestic violence. But the theme of loss is present long before this part of the book, in stories of missing children and of lost innocence. And so often these characters seem lost not to fire, exactly, but to things just as nightmarishly inescapable, just as elemental and alive. In “Under the Black Water,” a community is taken over by a cultish impulse; in “End of Term,” two girls are compelled by an unseen, ghostlike character to inflict pain upon themselves.

There is a strong element of the supernatural in all of these stories, and what makes Enriquez’s work so remarkable is that her subtlety in weaving it in. In many ways, she follows a traditional ghost story framework: She paints a convincing picture of reasonable characters living normal, detailed lives, and drops in just enough casual hints of the surreal along the way for us to understand when the characters finally lose control at the end in the face of the supernatural. But she does this so convincingly that it seems natural for her, as though she doesn’t even need to think in order to know what path to lead her readers down.

A lot of the stories in this book leave room for questions, but not in the sense that it feels like there is anything missing from them. It’s more a matter of knowing that the story has given you a lot to think about, and wanting to flip back to make sure you’ve understood everything that there is to understand. None of these stories prepare the reader to jump immediately into the next one, because they all take a minute to digest. This truly speaks to the immersive nature of Enriquez’s writing: She takes great care with each of her characters, affording them attention down to the last detail. Her ability to craft such true-to-life people, and to incorporate sufficient details to provide a full picture of their lives and relationships, is part of what makes her writing so convincing.

Of course, the stories gain a further layer of power from their attention to social context. “The Dirty Kid” serves as Enriquez’s take on the relationships between poverty and affluence; “Spiderweb” offers an eerie punishment for a judgmental classist; “The Neighbor’s Courtyard” focuses on issues of moral accountability within public service careers. Putting a horror spin on a lot of these subjects is all too fitting, because many of them are truly horrific to deal with in real life. It is also refreshing to see socially informed horror pulled off so successfully in a literary setting, and the setting of contemporary Argentina lends itself to many rich descriptions and historical contexts that Enriquez makes full use of in her writing.

Chilling, thought-provoking and at times impossible to put down, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is a terrific read. Enriquez’s descriptions and characterizations may at times be disturbing, but they also illuminate some of the deep-seated problems and preoccupations that have long troubled humanity, and they will prompt readers to confront some of these demons within themselves. Allow Enriquez to guide you through this haunted labyrinth of urban horrors — from an abandoned house to a skeletal shrine to a haunted tour bus — and although you will encounter some darkness along the way, you won’t regret it.

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“Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories”

Mariana Enriquez

Feb. 21, 2017

Hogarth: Tra edition