Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell / Riverhead Books / 2019 / 978-0399184628 / 240 pages
“In the flat darkness of the countryside. There is only disappointment, a wedding dress, and a bathroom she shouldn’t have taken so long in.” The first story, “Headlights,” in Samanta Schweblin’s latest collection, the Man Booker Prize-longlisted Mouthful of Birds, begins with a woman in limbo, still a newlywed, left by her husband on the highway. Stuck in a sort of psychological limbo, while simultaneously dealing with her husband’s betrayal, she tries to make sense of the surreal.
Later, the narrator, Felicity, discovers she is far from the only woman to have been left at this particular rest stop. Schweblin highlights individual injustices while subtly linking Felicity’s situation to a larger social issue, underlining unanswerable questions such as why people hurt others. She cleverly omits any male voices in this story, leaving her reader to hang in the limbo along with the protagonist. Schweblin never satisfies her reader with an explanation — perhaps there is none — but rather hyper fixates on the suffering, and how in the world people are meant to cope with the hurt. This, as many other stories in the collection, exposes pain without focusing on blame.
Schweblin delicately crafts images that leave a lasting impression on her reader through a lens centered on a diverse array of neurodivergent persons. She breaks down the fragile dichotomy between the real and unreal with unnerving mysteries: trains that never let their passengers off, a test for if someone is cut out for murder, or a merman eyeing you from the pier.
The line between victims and perpetrators are hauntingly blurry, as with the narrator, Benavides, in “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides,” who after twenty-nine years of marriage, stabs his wife and stuffs her body in a suitcase. His real issues only begin when he tries to confess his crime to his friend and doctor, who doesn’t believe him, saying “I tell you I do understand… mine has been dead since they day we got married. Every once in a while she speaks: she insists that I’m fat, that we have to do something about my mother, and then there’s the matter of the environment… but you mustn’t concern yourself with them.” Again, the reader here is made uncomfortable, dropped in a difficult, bizarre situation in which there are no right answers to the questions being asked. Even more shocking is how Benevides becomes increasingly relatable as he is alienated and misinterpreted by the people who think they understand him the best.
While several stories in this collection hinge on violence, the violence is neither glorified nor demonized. The emphasis remains on the people themselves rather than what they have done, toying with the limits of sympathy in unexpected ways.
In “Santa Claus Sleeps at Our House,” a child narrates their own experience as their mother and father become increasingly disturbed. The child’s perspective haunts because of its plain style, showing the narrator’s gaps of understanding, while rearticulating the situation as honestly as possible, exposing truths the adult characters can’t admit; “Dad said that Mom wasn’t sick and she didn’t have cancer and she wasn’t going to die. That something like that could very well have happened, but he wasn’t such a lucky man.” I was amazed reading this story, wondering at all the things the child saw between his parent’s relationships that they themselves couldn’t see.
Often, the most important things to admit are the hardest to. Although it is frustratingly sad how easily truth is lost, both by individuals who refuse to admit it and by others who refuse to listen, I was truly surprised by all the sheer amount of beauty incorporated into these stories. For example, in “Butterflies,” a man expecting to see children rush out at the bell as he picks up his daughter from school is sorely mistaken; “doors open and hundreds of butterflies of every color and size rush out toward the waiting parents. He thinks they might attack him; maybe he thinks he’s going to die. The other parents don’t seem to be afraid, and the butterflies just flutter among them.”
Schweblin narrates a vast array of characters with distinct voices, all struggling to make sense of themselves in a world that refuses to make sense of them. “My Brother Walter” is narrated by a man leading a seemingly perfect life, except for the fact he doesn’t understand his brother’s depression. “Heads Against Concrete” is written from the perspective of an artist who prefers isolation to human connections. Finally, “The Size of Things” tells the story of a grown man obsessed with children’s toys.
Consequently, this collection of stories got me thinking again and again about perspective, the way I have ignored others, and the way I ignore parts of myself. I think many of us live our lives thinking we understand much more about people than we do, especially in the those we expect to understand, like partners, friends, and family. On a larger scale, Schweblin opens questions about how society neglects people, brushing them aside as mentally ill, when often the people themselves aren’t actually beyond understanding, it’s just that nobody listens to them.
With an increased relevancy placed on mental health and mental health disorders, this collection of short stories is an essential read, exposing the complicated social implications of being “different.” Schweblin forced me out of my comfort zone and out of my own head, into the minds of the very people I thought I had the least potential to understand. This book will stick under your skin, get you to question the world, the way people are treated, and all the beauty and hurt at once. Mouthful of Birds is really a mouthful of birds; an alarming, intricate mess crying to be heard, articulating the inarticulable the best way humans know how, through stories.