Author: Mariana Enríquez
First Published: February 21, 2017
Genres: Gothic, Horror, Magical Realism, Psychological
Format: ARC, eBook
Macabre, disturbing and exhilarating, Things We Lost in the Fire is a collection of twelve short stories that use fear and horror to explore multiple dimensions of life in contemporary Argentina. From women who set themselves on fire in protest of domestic violence to angst-ridden teenage girls, friends until death do they part, to street kids and social workers, young women bored of their husbands or boyfriends, to a nine-year-old serial killer of babies and a girl who pulls out her nails and eyelids in the classroom, to hikikomori, abandoned houses, black magic, northern Argentinean superstition, disappearances, crushes, heartbreak, regret and compassion. This is a strange, surreal and unforgettable collection by an astonishing new talent asking vital questions of the world as we know it.Also by this author: The Dangers of Smoking in Bed
The atmosphere created in many of these stories was nothing short of haunting, everything seems normal in the beginning, but then you notice some things that are a little off, a little dark. Things We Lost in the Fire was a journey into the surreal. The stories are set in modern-day Argentina with a diverse cast of characters and stories.
Before reading this, I actually didn’t know much about Argentina’s history and culture so this book was a learning experience. I was intrigued by some common themes that I had noticed from story to story and decided to do a little research. I found that many of the stories took place in the 1980s and 1990s, a decade after an event called “The Dirty War,” a period of state terrorism during the Cold War. I find this bit of information important in understanding some of the recurring themes and character types in the stories.
Several stories feature groups of military officers that take on intimidating roles which is the first and most obvious link to a country still dealing with the after-effects of a police state. Many of the characters are apathetic to the suffering of others, often choosing not to interfere and walking away when confronted with obvious abuse. Meaningful relationships are noticeably difficult, and it’s no surprise when the people are so devoid of empathy for their fellow man. Drug addiction is rampant and living conditions are relatively poor for most. There is also a deep fascination with the macabre, with several characters becoming very visibly obsessed with the idea of death.
One of the things that the author did very well was building tension over the course of the stories as the plot develops, making the reader feel anxious as they witness each character’s descent into settings or situations that seem beyond human comprehension. There were a few stories that particularly stood out among the rest. My very favorite was also the first in the collection which gives the book a strong start, The Dirty Kid. It sets the tone for the rest of the book and left me asking so many questions after it was finished.
“What do you know about what really goes on around here, mamita? You live here, but you’re from a different world.”
Another notable story was Adela’s House, which was perhaps the most well-developed story with characters that I wanted to read more about. It also helps that it was the haunted house story, which is one of my favorite genres in horror. The most frightening story of the collection though, and arguably one of the only truly scary stories, was The Neighbor’s Courtyard. While I couldn’t wrap my head around the narrator’s logic and I was sometimes annoyed with how she chose to do things, it was the one story that made my toes curl and made it difficult for me to sleep that night.
The only issue I took with the stories was that they became a tiny bit predictable in that they all followed a pattern. You’re introduced to characters and get a glimpse of their personalities, their thoughts, and their every day lives. They come close to things that are dark or dangerous, and there is usually a quick and sometimes very descriptive horror twist at the end, leaving readers at some cliff hanger. Not every story ended this way, but many of them did. This sort of storytelling makes the whole book feel like one big appetizer that never delivers the full course meal. Some of the stories could’ve used more time to develop the plot and characters. A complete story can be told even in short story form, which is something that I felt was missing.
Besides all that, the anthology was just plain wonderfully written. The translation seems to have been done well and there are several Spanish words still woven throughout the stories, keeping the overall feel of the stories authentic to the setting. Enriquez manages to make the macabre themes in the stories feel almost romantic, drawing readers in for a glimpse of a world not quite like our own. Things We Lost in the Fire grabbed my attention from the first story and kept me captivated to the very last.
Warnings: violence, death