Book Review - Seven Empty Houses

Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin is perhaps best known for her novel Fever Dream, adapted for Netflix in 2021, but her short stories are equally celebrated. Her latest collection (published in Spanish in 2015 and meticulously translated by Megan McDowell) focuses on the domestic in disarray.

The most striking of the seven tales, Breath from the Depths, is also the longest. Lola is sick and her memory is failing: “she wanted to die, but every morning, inevitably, she woke up again”. Her ordered existence – facilitated by her longsuffering husband of 57 years – is disrupted when a single woman and her young son move in next door. They trigger memories of Lola’s dead son who “had not grown any taller than the kitchen cabinets”. She is suspicious of the pair and dislikes it when her husband befriends the boy. 

Schweblin skilfully directs our unease until it mirrors that of her protagonist’s. As her mind becomes increasingly unmoored, Lola obsessively packs away her life, boxing and classifying, until she begins “to fear the worst: that death required an effort she could no longer make”. She recalls an incident in the supermarket where she had observed an “overly stout” woman and her son. Lola derides the woman in her head for becoming “fat and unkempt” until she recognises, with terrifying certainty, that she is a younger version of herself.

Boxes also feature in Two Square Feet, where the unnamed narrator is between homes. Her dislocation is slyly conveyed when she describes her mother-in-law’s festive decorations: “The Christmas tree is pint-sized, skinny, and a light, artificial green. It has round red ornaments, two gold garlands, and six Santa Claus figures dangling from the branches like a club of hanged men… the Santa Clauses’ eyes are not painted exactly over the ocular depressions, where they should be.”

Schweblin’s characters are often unsettled by their home environment or envious of others’ domesticity. In None of That, a mother and daughter visit wealthy residential neighbourhoods “to look at other people’s houses”. Initially, the mother moves the odd piece of garden furniture but, on this occasion, she drives across a carefully manicured lawn, enters the house and brazenly purloins the owner’s much-prized sugar bowl.

Part of the pleasure of Schweblin’s fictions is how she subverts expectations. In An Unlucky Man, Abi is rushed to hospital after drinking bleach. Her eight-year-old sister has to endure their father waving her white underpants on a stick to clear a path through traffic. In the waiting room, a man sits next to the girl. Annoyed at the attention being lavished on Abi, she reveals it’s her birthday and that she is not wearing any underpants. When the stranger offers to buy her a new pair it seems perfectly natural for her to follow him to the shopping centre.

Schweblin is good at depicting the destabilising effects of grief and absence. Occasionally a story misses the mark or is too ethereal to fully satisfy, but her fractured worlds make compelling reading. 

Originally published by The Observer.