Things We Lost in the Fire, a twelve story collection by Argentinian author Mariana Enriquez, captures the spirit of the author’s home country. After two novels, a novella, and a volume of travel writing, this short story collection is the first of the author’s work to appear in English, translated by Megan McDowell. A detailed cultural portrait and a blend of realistic fiction and fantasy, the stories feature spirits and murders, marriages happy and sad, friendships and heartaches, all against the backdrop of past and present Argentina. The stories are not entirely unrelated; some characters overlap, and themes of love, grief, death, and afterlife feature throughout.
One of the most prominent themes, friendship, is explored from all angles. The author picks apart the intricacies of human relationships and lays them out on the page in a manner that is simple but delicate. Some friends are confused for lovers (‘The Inn’), some “roared with laughter, sweaty, sometimes bloody” while on a teenage road-trip (‘The Intoxicated Years’), some support each other through mental health struggles (‘Green Red Orange’). ‘Adela’s House’ is the story of two siblings who befriend a neighbour, and whose lives forever changeas a result. The collection is a meditation on the power of people; not only does Enriquez ask how childhood, teenage, and adult friendships work, but why they all matter.
A remarkable feat in Things We Lost in the Fire is the depiction of setting. Although I haven’t actually visited myself, my best friend is from Argentina, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the collection to her as a realistic account of the country. ‘The Dirty Kid’ tackles the widespread homelessness of contemporary Argentina, portraying dangerous neighbourhoods not with the intention to criticise, but to allow raw, unglamorous settings the space in fiction they deserve. ‘The Intoxicated Years’ is a chronological timeline, following characters from 1989 to 1994, referencing political climates and how these affect the working class. Argentina’s past is portrayed alongside its present. The country’savenues, markets, and apartments come alive through the author’s prose.
‘Argentina had taken the river winding around its capital, which could have made for a beautiful day trip, and polluted it also arbitrarily, practically for the fun of it.’ (‘Under the Black Water’)
Humansare shaped by our surroundings. Mariana Enriquez recognises this and uses it to craft her characters, few of which are flat. Most are well-rounded, authentic, and plausible, as if they have been plucked straight from reality. ‘Spiderweb’, about a woman in an unhappy marriage, evokes great sympathy for a wife who starts to doubt herself when faced with a useless and unloving husband. ‘The Dirty Kid’, ‘The Neighbor’s Courtyard’, and ‘Green Red Orange’ explore the inner psyche of women. Readers can relate to their everyday thoughts, all-consuming guilt, and mental health struggles.
‘“We all make mistakes,” she told me. “The important thing is to fix them.”
“And how does this get fixed?”
“Babe, death is the only problem without a solution.”’ (‘Spiderweb’)
As with any collection of short stories, some tales are less memorable than others.Not all are universally relatable, probably because of how deeply rooted they are in Argentinian culture. The titular story (‘Things We Lost in the Fire’) was placed last, and slipped into the background slightly. A snappy title, but not as gripping as expected to be. Some of the stories are more spiritual (e.g. ‘An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt’), which oppose the otherwise extremely realistic descriptions of places and people.
The most stellar in the collection, I think,is ‘Under the Black Water’, an arresting story which details a local murder. By getting into the head of detective attorney Marina Pinat, Enriquez explores the corruption of the police force in a country where crime is too common for comfort. With a setting that is as deep and detailed at the characters, the story is haunting, harrowing, and heart-breaking.
‘No Flesh Over the Bones’ is another of my favourites. A short and surreal story that echoes the likes of Murakami, the narrative is written in first-person, from the perspective of a woman who finds a skull on the street. Quickly and creepily, the protagonist names it Vera and becomes closer to it than her own husband. The author launches into an exploration of a collective cultural past, and how it still resonates in our present.
‘We all walk over bones in this city, it’s just a question of making holes deep enough to reach the buried dead.’ (‘No Flesh Over Our Bones’)
A thorough exploration of the human condition, Things We Lost in the Fire is eerie and unsettling, but strangely comfortable at the same time. All readers, no matter their cultural backgrounds or traditions, will find something which will strike a personal cord. Mariana Enriquez took a number of risks, and every one of them proved worth it. This brave collection will not get lost in the fire. It will rise far above the flames.
Mariana Enríquez is a novelist, journalist and short story writer from Argentina. She has published two novels, a collection of short stories as well as a collecion of travel writings, Chicos que vuelven, and a novella. She is an editor at Página/12, a newspaper based in Buenos Aires.
Things We Lost in the Fire was published by Portobello Books on 6th April 2017.
To discover more about Portobello Books click here…
Review by Alice Kouzmenko
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