Book Review: Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez

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It seems that 2017 was my year of reading books from Argentina. From the classic The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares to the beautiful reflection into libraries in Alberto Manguel’s essay collection The Library at Night. In more recent releases there was Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac and of course the much hyped Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. These four books would have been enough to satisfy any reader, but there was one that stood out far more than these, and that was Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez. Translated by Megan McDowell, this collection introduced the English world to a great example of Argentine Gothic; however, this could easily fall into the horror genre.

What made this collection stand out is the way Mariana Enríquez was able to explore issues within Argentina without addressing the history directly. The beauty of using literature instead of journalism was the ability to offer social criticism and personal opinions in a stylised and entertaining way. Here we can read about the gruesome realities that many people live in Buenos Aires. Starting from the opening story “The Dirty Kid” which explores the fear a woman faces living alone in the slums. Not to mention the poverty, drug abuse, gang-related killings and even satanic rituals that surround her every day.  In the translation notes by Megan McDowell she states that “Mariana Enríquez’s stories, Argentina’s particular history combines with an aesthetic many have tied to the gothic horror tradition of the English speaking world”. There are many of the tropes found in the horror genre including abandoned houses, supernatural elements, and body dismemberment or mutilation. However, it is not these, but the everyday situations that often terrify the reader.

For me, “The Inn” appears of one of the unsung heroes within the collection, it combines a real issue with a bizarre story. This story explores adolescent antics as the girls begin to explore their own sexuality. However, there is the lurking terror of the looming presence of the Alfredo Stroessner soldiers. Enríquez was able to explore the horror of unexpected terror in the time of the Paraguayan dictator. Hinting at the constant state of terror and the clandestine torture centres without mentioning them directly.

Mariana Enríquez has an amazing ability to explore so many issues without mentioning them. I am confident with a better understanding of Argentinian history, Things We Lost in the Fire is a completely different book. Exploring many themes from poverty to the corruption facing the country, but the biggest focus is the treatment of woman. You cannot really talk about this short story collection without spending time talking about the title story “Things We Lost in the Fire”, which explores the idea of women taking control of their own beauty in a rather unique way. The story leaves Silvina in the position to either betray her mother and the Burning Women movement or physically mutilating her own body.

This is the final story in the collection that not only sums up the underlying themes throughout the book but it also leaves you with this feeling that women must often be subjected to a choice where all choices are harmful, leaving her to pick the lesser of two evils. This story is the title story for a reason, if you only read one of the stories make sure it “Things We Lost in the Fire”. However, I do recommend the entire collection. It is a socio-political masterpiece, exploring the horrors and struggles of Argentina and women around the world. If you only read one short story collection in your life, make it Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez.

Things We Lost in the Fire is out now from Portobello Books


I was a Teenage Psychopath


In his third published novel, Loner, Whiting award winning author Teddy Wayne offers a glimpse into the mind of college freshman David Federman. Beginning his first semester at Harvard University, David is initially presented as a quirky, innocent protagonist with an adept ability to reverse words in conversation. David becomes immediately infatuated with Veronica Morgan Wells, a beautiful socialite who he feels is far too perfect to ever be interested in a relationship with him. Ever determined to win Veronica's affection however, David begins a relationship with her roommate Sara, setting the pace of a typical, coming of age campus novel in which boy meets girl and spends the entirety of the novel attempting to win her affection.

David's sinister intentions are soon revealed as his obsession with Veronica becomes less amicable and innocent as he begins to openly stalk her, lusting constantly over the idea of her. All the while, Veronica only seems interested in David's affection when she stands to benefit from their interaction, utilizing his naivety and intelligence by having him complete her course work. David does everything he can to assimilate himself into being more like Veronica's boyfriend, one of Harvard's elite and the pinnacle of an alpha male personality which eventually produces one brief sexual encounter between himself and Veronica. She soon cuts all ties with him as he delves deeper into his insanity and becomes more erratic and obsessive. Only when he discovers that their entire relationship had been an experiment by Veronica to explore the differences between relationships with Alpha and Beta male personalities for a final report for a course does David finally break, plunging the novel into a dark and twisted ending that is impossible to look away from.

David is first presented as a socially-awkward teenager attempting to cope with the transitional period between high school and college, but his intelligence and naive charm is so endearing that it is difficult to not feel as if he could be someone you know, a loner from the early years of your academic career who you had dismissed and forgotten. The innocence of dating is exemplified as David forges a relationship with Veronica's roommate Sara which fuels the nostalgia of early sexual experiences that continues to put the reader at ease with David's actions. Although his commitment to Sara is a fallacy, his innocence and inexperience both act as a red herring for his true nature:

We lay on our backs on the narrow mattress, our shoulders but nothing else touching, her body an environmentally friendly space heater. The white-noise machine was, indeed, clamorous; I would never hear anything in your room over it. As it thrummed, our stomachs produced gurgly video game sounds. Neither of us was making a move, two disoriented and jet-lagged travelers stepping off a plane in a foreign country, unsure if we had to go first to customs or the baggage claim.

David becomes the underdog whom I could not help but cheer for as he continues to grow into adulthood, all the while systematically calculating his next move to get closer to his beloved Veronica. The humor embedded within the novel creates a familiar ambiance which acts as a beacon attracting those of us who were, perhaps, slightly flawed in our formative years. Reading David as the hero throughout the beginning of the novel, which is exactly how Wayne sets the tone of the first chapters, unifies our relationship with the character.

The journey of the hero through his coming of age adventure is a welcoming concept, one which turns on blinders for the reader and allows us to lower our defenses and trust in David. The book progresses much like a traditional campus novel, a coming of age saga as David muses on his relationship with Sara and the outcome if he remains complacent in his search for his one true love:

I shuddered to think of the routinized trajectory we were on. If the two of us continued carrying on the habits that constituted our relationship, who's to say we wouldn't end up getting married, moving to Cleveland to be closer to her parents, and siring three children to replicate our family structures as I sentenced myself to a lifetime of buying CVS-brand zinc and date nights in mini-mall Starbucks.

His unsuspecting nature becomes increasingly erratic however, as his lust for Veronica begins to overwhelm him. His early humble attempts at creating no more than a social encounter with her are overshadowed by his now obsessive personality. Wayne begins to plant fear and apprehension into what was once a naive and innocent character, but his expertise is demonstrated in his ability to keep readers invested in the outcome of David's ambitions.

Wayne's calculated prose from the perspective of David moves the reader along through the plot, rapidly forcing us to question the motives of the once innocent narrator we were initially introduced to. As he becomes more possessive over Veronica, the slight idiosyncrasies of an awkward teenage being placed in circumstances far beyond his comfort zone become less endearing. The writing expertly sets the scene as well, allowing Wayne to recreate that fresh, new feel of a first semester away from home with utilizing his mastery in vocabulary while maintaining an approachable and comfortable reading experience. The balance created by the author between the two concepts is a wonderful reading experience. He can capture the nostalgia of the traditional college experience while simultaneously forging a malicious ambiance through a character who resembles a youthful, timid Patrick Bateman.

The novel begins to twist, moving from a comfortable read about a lonely adult who is unable to verbalize his passions to a psychotic diary of a man who is sick with the need for control. David's simple interactions with Veronica begin to create an illusion of a budding relationship, one which he immediately capitalizes upon and forgoes the love and trust of Sara to attempt to become closer to Veronica.

You'd speculated about my romantic personality and you'd now heard me having intercourse. No more measuring out my life with coffee spoons; it was time for a paradigm shift. Breaking up with Sara the morning after sex would be too harsh. And you were still asleep anyway. The real coup would be if you overheard it. Not only would it alert you to our severance, one that I'd initiated, but if Sara became distraught, it might make David from Prufrock look a little dangerous, not so wholesome after all.

He becomes more predatory, following her and waiting to feign coincidence to be near her. Teddy Wayne begins to reveal the truth behind his characters, leaving the reader repulsed that their early investment in David was a misguided mistake woven intricately within the text. Wayne's ability to fool us into trusting his character’s intent is the immediate success of this work. Without an initial investment in David, there is no payout in the end when he breaks and destroys the world which he so carefully created.

To be fair, there are times in the book when Wayne hints that David's obsession is more than just a schoolboy's crush, exemplified by a bizarre series of sexual rituals that force us to question if the character is as naive as first described as well as his immediate arousal at the sight of either pain or fragility. These two traits combined act as red flags, reminding us that although we once trusted David and wished the best for him, his true nature is far darker than anticipated:

In my room, under the covers, I revived my erection and cocooned it inside your bathrobe belt with an opening at the   top. But I didn't want to bring myself to orgasm with it, as I usually did; no, this time I would use a light touch, just enough to sustain the engorging bloodstream, delighting in the tactile sensation and the memory of you on the stairs, extending my priapic ecstasy for hours.

While David continues to slip farther from reality, we are presented with a closer look into Veronica. Although David's opinion of her is polluted by his lust and compulsion to be with her, she is nonetheless presented as a beautiful, but severely flawed character. Coming from a wealthy, upper-Manhattan lifestyle, Veronica seems completely uninterested in intellectual and academic gain while attending Harvard. Not only has she consistently used David to complete the writing for her classes, but she appears to be more interested in a fast-paced party lifestyle rather than her education. Her boyfriend during the beginning of the semester is an iconic example of the Harvard elite, a hyper-masculine alpha male who acts as the complete opposite of David. The three end up at a party together during the year, rocketing David far beyond his comfort zone into a world that is completely foreign, but impressive to him.

This was no sophomoric party in a freshman dorm, with its frenzied frottage of ephebes like so many molecules in a chemical reaction, its deafening Top 40 songs, and its disembodied arms holding out red Solo cups around the keg like baby sparrows squalling for worms. Upperclassmen mingled around button-tufted leather sofas and armchairs as the Kinks played at a soothing volume. Drinks were dispensed at a brass-rail bar. The walls feature framed black-and-white photos of notable alumni and vintage Harvard. In a far corner, the crack of colliding billiard balls periodically sounded from a crimson-velvet table.

Class and gender roles continue to play a pivotal part in this novel. David feels he must embrace the hyper-masculine, aggressive stereotype to impress Veronica. He openly partakes in the use of drugs during the party, attempting to camouflage himself into the environment which he has been dropped into. He is willing to tarnish his reputation with his small social circle and become dominant in his sexual exhortations in order to impress her. He begins to take more risks and publicly denounces Sara in order to become what he believes is the ideal man for Veronica. As he does so, she becomes more distant. We are led to believe she is attempting to avoid him, unsure as to how their relationship is to progress, but Wayne brings the pace of the novel to an abrupt halt with the discovery of Veronica's research.

Veronica has feigned her entire personality this semester, attempting to create romance with both an “Alpha and Beta” male to exploit the transnational nature of relationships. She proves at this point to be the aggressor, using David's trust and sexual inexperience as an experiment for purely academic gain. Only when his behavior become questionable and concerning did she abort the experiment. Every interaction he has had with her has been a rouse, a carefully calculated plan from Veronica, not David as we were being led to believe, to get closer to him.

The choice to flip the stereotypical gender roles of a campus novel and allow Veronica to be proven as the sexual aggressor for the sake of experimentation and academic triumph is genius. I was stricken with anticipation as the progress of the novel was brought to a screeching halt, foiling David's reckless behavior. I felt satisfied with what Wayne had presented at this point, believing that the novel would conclude with the image of a broken-hearted loner attempting to learn from his mistakes and move past his obsession, a major life-lesson definitive of a coming of age story, however Wayne's brutal crusade had not concluded. David's true character is revealed as a heartless, criminal mastermind who successfully achieves his intentions by forcing himself upon Veronica in a grotesque, horror-movie ending leaving me disgusted but unable to stop reading. David plants himself in Veronica's room and waits patiently until she is most vulnerable before he attacks. Systematically narrating his actions like he has throughout the novel, they have never been more terrifying as begins to sexual assault Veronica. It is only through innocent Sara that she is saved, leading to the arrest of David and the final soliloquy from our narrator.

But the true terror of the novel comes from the final paragraph, in which you are reminded that although David had become a monster in the most notorious scandal that had ever ruptured the sacred halls of Harvard, he remains unknown to onlookers. Narrating once more, David comments that someone would look upon him being placed in the police car and all they will now is his name and that he was a bit of a loner, nothing more and nothing less.  The terror of ambiguity reminds us that David is a very real person, a realistic danger lurking just outside our social circles.

Teddy Wayne was able to seduce my goodwill and fool me into trusting and believing in the severely damaged David. A thriller of plot twists culminating in a grotesque and brutal display of coveted obsession, Loner explores the dark regions of the human condition through an unreliable narrator who you cannot help but fall in love with, much to your dismay after the conclusion of the novel. Through a willingness to write about taboo subjects from the perspective of a deranged sociopath, Wayne has created a haunting, gut-punching novel in which the reader is left wondering if they too have known a David Federman in their lifetime. No matter how horrific the events of the novel were, the real fear embedded by Wayne is the fear of the unknown, that anyone could be the loner we see in the back of the squad car.

Loner by Teddy Wayne was published by Simon & Schuster

Dalton Gentry is a writer from Saint Joseph, Missouri with a bachelor's degree in Literature from Missouri Western State University. His previous work can be found in Open Letters Monthly and Black Orchid Poetry.