Anyone who saw me reading Things We Lost in the Fire in public must have thought I was suffering and in deep pain. Every story in Mariana Enriquez’s debut collection had me grimacing and squirming, shifting uncomfortably in my seat. But her stories are so thoroughly transporting that I lacked the self-awareness to care. I was far away in Argentina, worried about the news of the decapitated child flashing across the television screen, and the one-armed girl who went missing in a haunted house, and on a murder tour of Buenos Aires. Enriquez’s stories all center around life in Argentina, often detailing the lives of disadvantaged youth. These stories are dark and unsettling, written so beautifully that the whole experience of reading them leaves you in a macabre trance.
Argentina is a country that lends itself to ghost stories. Its past is a violent, dark one. For decades, the country was under a military dictatorship, and tens of thousands of people were killed or went missing during that time. Children were kidnapped and their mothers were taken by the regime. The shadow of the nation’s grim and relatively recent history looms heavily over the psyche of the stories in this collection.
I didn’t know much about Argentinian history before reading this book, and her characters are exposed to a level of danger and crime that take their lives far beyond my own experiences. Luckily, Enriquez has a talent for taking an experience that might be completely foreign to you and bridging that gap. Within the confines of a short story, the world she’s describing becomes completely familiar. She plays with this skill by throwing a wrench in the story, intentionally adding in a scene or detail that displaces you just when you thought you’d found your footing.
The first story of the collection is “Dirty Kid,” and in it we meet a transvestite prostitute, vagrants, a homeless junkie mother, and her undernourished son (the titular character). Our narrator sees the mother and child every day on her way home. They live on a mattress outside her family house. One day, Dirty Kid rings her doorbell. His mother is gone, and he’s all alone. Our narrator takes Dirty Kid out for ice cream, and on the way they pass murals commemorating the dead. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition of innocence and corruption, safety and instability. The following day, the news is filled with stories of a decapitated child, and the narrator stops seeing Dirty Kid around. She becomes obsessive trying to find out if the murdered boy is Dirty Kid. It’s a story about the ugly underbelly of a dangerous city, told with grace. Enriquez’s writing manages to be unsparingly dark and yet luminescent at the same time.
Another story that stood out was “The Intoxicated Years.” This story explores the romance of female friendships, particularly how powerfully they take hold in one’s youth. It follows a group of three friends through years of rebellion and drug use. When one of them gets a boyfriend who pulls her away from the intensely intimate spell of their friendship, the other girls turn on her. Our narrator displays deep cruelty and lashes out, masking her hurt from her friend’s betrayal with anger. There’s something about the unapologetic maliciousness that stings just as much as some of the more viscerally brutal scenes in the story:
I reminded her of Celina, a girl from our school a little older than us who had died after her fourth abortion, bleeding out in the street as she tried to get to the hospital. Abortion was illegal and the women who performed them kicked the girls right out to the street afterward. There were dogs in the clinics; they said the animals ate the fetuses so they wouldn’t leave any traces behind. . . . We left her crying in the plaza.
One story that held onto me and never loosened its grip was called “No Flesh Over Our Bones.” It’s about a girl who finds a discarded human skull in the dumpster of the dentistry school and takes it home with her. She talks to the skull and names her Vera. She spritzes Vera with perfume and has conversations with her. She imagines the advice Vera would give her if she could talk (specifically, about her leaving her boyfriend). Her attachment to Vera becomes a feverish obsession:
I decided to stop eating much, to eat very little. I thought about beautiful bodies like Vera’s, if she were whole: white bones that shine under the light in forgotten graves, thin bones that sound like little party bells when they hit against each other, frolicking in the fields, dances of death. . . .Vera and I are going to be beautiful and light, nocturnal and earthy, beautiful, the crusts of earth enfolding us. Hollow, dancing skeletons. Vera and I—no flesh over our bones.
Our narrator’s descent into madness is so romantically morbid that as a reader it attracts and repels you at the same time.
The stories in Things We Lost in the Fire have a pattern of lulling you into a feeling of safety before tossing you a curveball, shattering your complacency with something grotesque and unexpected. Some stories incorporate elements of magical realism, while others just depict profound gore and disturbing violence. In less capable hands, this style could easily border on gratuitous, but there’s nothing that feels disingenuous about Things We Lost in the Fire. This is a haunting and consuming collection, and though the experience of reading it is tough, for the right reader it will also be immeasurably rewarding.