I really enjoyed reading Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream last year (you can find my review of it here). That book won the 2018 Tournament of Books and is something I’ve continuously brought up and recommended since I finished it.
You can imagine, then, that I went into Mouthful of Birds, Schweblin’s newly translated short story collection, with a combination of excitement and trepidation. Fever Dream benefited from lowered expectations, and truth be told, I still don’t think I quite understand that book very well–even though I love it. Would Mouthful of Birds live up to that?
The short answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, Schweblin remains a masterful writer. Her stories are unsettling and never let you feel complacent. There’s a propulsive unease that also makes them compulsively readable. There’s shock, but it never feels cheap–and it always feels like there’s a purpose to it, even if you aren’t exactly sure what that purpose is. Compare that to, say, Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel Eileen, which felt gross just for the sake of being gross.
On the other hand, while Schweblin’s writing does compel you to finish, since these are short stories there isn’t the same sense of building to something that I got out of Fever Dream. Most of these stories are very short, which makes them very readable but also makes the experience feel a little empty. As a group (that is, if you take the collection as a whole), they pack a punch, but individually they start to lose flavor. I finished this book yesterday and I remember stories from the beginning and the end, but everything in the middle is already lost to me.
It doesn’t help that the deeper meaning of many of the stories is just as elusive as what happens in Fever Dream. I guess when it’s one novella, you can deal with it. Twenty different stories is, well, another story entirely.
The last story also feels like it takes a somewhat sharp turn into satire–and while it’s the story that is the easiest to parse, the tonal departure felt jarring to me. I kept asking myself if it was supposed to be funny or serious, because nothing in the previous stories had prepared me for it. I would not be surprised if I learned that this story was originally published separately somewhere (the internet was not helpful when I tried to investigate).
In the end, I like this book and I would be willing to recommend it–but only under certain circumstances or with specific caveats. I remain impressed by Schweblin and curious to see what comes next from her, but in the meantime, I’m going to keep pointing people to Fever Dream.