The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez
This collection of short stories was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize last year, prize for fiction translated into English. It didn’t win but was lauded amongst some outstanding fiction. I would recommend any of the five shortlisted books, all were excellent and had the bonus of being short books. This year there are two doorstops on the list and the thought of embarking on 900 plus pages puts me off at once. It is always good to see short story collections included – I love the way they highlight a range of skills from the author.
It is hard to slot this particular book into a genre. There are elements of horror and supernatural in most of the stories but they are treated in such a matter-of-fact way that they are lifted beyond what I would term horror. Gothic is a term used on the back cover, but again modern-day settings in the back streets of Buenos Aires doesn’t feel Gothic either. Perhaps it is best to say that her ghosts don’t adhere to traditional supernatural norms. There are twelve stories in the collection, the shortest are both only ten pages whilst the longest is fifty.
The first story is called Angelita Unearthed, about the remains of a dead child that was brought to a new house by a grandmother worried that the little girl would be all alone. This is how she is described:
Until she appeared in my apartment ten years later, crying beside my bed one stormy night.
The angel baby doesn’t look like a ghost. She doesn’t float and she isn’t pale and she doesn’t wear a white dress. She half rotted away, and she doesn’t talk. The first time she appeared, I thought it was a nightmare and I tried to wake up. When I couldn’t do it I started to realize she was real, I screamed and cried and pulled the sheets over my head, my eyes squeezed tight and my hands over my ears so I couldn’t hear her – at that point I didn’t know she was mute. But when I came out from there some hours later, the angel baby was still there, the remains of an old blanket draped over her shoulders like a poncho. She was pointing her finger to the outside, towards the window and the street, and that’s how I realized it was daytime. It’s weird to see a dead person during the day. I asked her what she wanted, but all she did was keep pointing, like we were in a horror movie.
It turns out that only some people can see the angel baby, most have no idea she is following you down the street. The modern twist on the spooky story.
My favourite short in the collection is called Where Are You, Dear Heart? A teen is obsessed by sick people in literature and then in real life. With the help of medical books, she narrows down her fantasies to pulmonary illnesses and cardiac patients. Especially in younger people “If they were beautiful, it was a kind of secret ruined beauty. All the other illnesses tended to have a timeline, but this one was different. A person could die at any moment.” When she buys a recording of irregular heartbeats it is the beginning of an obsession that leads her to online groups and eventually to someone with such an irregular heart. Their relationship takes an unexpected twist in the end.
The longest story is called Kids Who Came Back, and has a great set up. The woman works in the archive of missing children, where they collect any piece of evidence about children who have gone missing. Then suddenly they start to come back, to the delight of the grieving parents. But it is not long before doubts begin to creep into these lives. It is a great unravelling story that is sustained by its plausibility.
If you look hard there are several references in the book to the missing – in Argentina alone tens of thousands disappeared as political regimes sought to keep hold on power by the removal of opponents. People disappear in troubled countries all over the world. Here in these stories it is another thing to unsettle the reader.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Published by Granta