I usually try to spare Argentine writers the worst reviews. After all, a shared background and experience has to count for something, right? When I don’t quite enjoy a book by one of my countrymen, I simply refrain from recommending it. I don’t usually feel the need to go any further.
Unfortunately, the latest book in this list that I’ve read is Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) by Samantha Schweblin and I can’t in good conscience give this one an ambiguous review–you never know who might mistakenly buy the thing and then come after me with a fire axe.
First, let’s get some things clear. It’s very, very evident that that author is both extremely talented and extremely well-versed in the craft of writing. The fact that this is a bad book doesn’t mean that Schweblin is a bad writer. She very clearly isn’t. In fact, I’d say she is a very good writer.
The second thing I need to point out is that this book–a collection of seven short stories–has one some serious awards. The main body of the collection won the Ribera del Duero Prize while the story not included in that prize won the Juan Rulfo Prize. While I’m not as familiar with Spanish-language awards as those given in English, and can’t truly say how prestigious these two are, it’s clear that these stories were highly valued by the judges of two different international competitions in two different countries.
So, please keep the above under consideration while I tell you why I didn’t like this book at all.
The reason Schweblin’s undoubted talent couldn’t keep it from being a massively boring read is down to the subject matter she chose. So let’s have a look at that.
The overall approach is similar to what I discussed in the O Henry Prize volume I read recently. Schweblin goes tight into her narrator’s mind and looks at the world from that extremely limited perspective. The key difference with a typical “woman goes to the laundromat and thinks deep thoughts about menstruation” story that we all love to laugh at is that Schweblin’s characters are mentally a bit off.
It sounds interesting, but in this particular case, it really isn’t. These characters aren’t insane in ways that entertain, but each one has just a little bit of their personality exaggerated–an obsession taken a bit further than is healthy, a neurosis that comes to the fore and pushes normal behaviour aside. It’s not enough to make the characters memorable… just enough to make the reader get depressed on their behalf.
Reading a book while alternately feeling depressed and embarrassed at the poor people populating its pages is not what I’d call an entertaining read. As a writer I recognize that only an excellent writer can maintain a consistent, unbroken sense of depression and ennui through a hundred and twenty pages. Shweblin is enormously talented; she did this on purpose.
It’s not a choice I would have made myself. I understand that there is a certain amount of this sensibility in literary fiction but, even when writing in that genre, I try to keep the stories and characters more interesting. I suppose that the difference is that I deviate just a little more from the everyday.
Speaking as a reader, I would love to be able to enjoy the characters, to find them interesting, likeable or entertaining as opposed to perfect recreations of my more annoying neighbours. This book failed in that respect despite the fact that it would have gotten full marks in most creative writing classes–and despite all of its prizes.
Anyway, I hope I’ve given an objective review of the volume–you can decide for yourself.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. His own book of literary short stories is entitled Love and Death, and you can buy it here.