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I’d never read anything by Argentine author Mariana Enríquez before The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. I know! And yet, I’m sort of glad I started here—went in with ‘fresh’ eyes, so to speak—because The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is a near-flawless collection of uncanny, unnerving, and unsettling psychological short stories that will have you sleeping with the lights on.
The 187 pages of Enríquez’s second book to be translated into English are haunted by ghostly children, familial curses, and vengeful teenagers. In just twelve (mostly) brief short stories—that manage to be both casually creepy and captivating—Enríquez conjures up armies of dead and disappeared children in the parks of Buenos Aires, sensorial assaults in Barcelona, and episodes of gory karmic retribution. We open on a woman oddly relaxed about the ghostly presence of her grandmother’s dead sibling and things only get weirder from there.
Hunger and obsession slice through the stories, whether literal, sexual, or otherwise. A stand-out for me was ‘Where Are You, Dear Heart?’ about a woman horny for heartbeats which leads to a grim and gruesome conclusion, exploring the dangers of going to extremes. ‘Our Lady of the Quarry’, with its visceral evocation of sheer teenage vengefulness was another favourite, while the sweaty self-consciousness of ‘Back When We Talked to the Dead’ had a suitably eerie conclusion and featured some classic horror: Ouija board hijinks. Meanwhile, ‘Meat’ felt just a touch too close—by which I mean, exactly close enough—to a possible reality in which pop idols are devoured by their fans.
It’s mostly women—young women—at the helm of these carnal tales, whether as disturbed narrator or disturbing protagonist; it’s mostly contemporary Argentina which serves as the backdrop for Enríquez’s staple urban realist narratives. However, ‘Rambla Triste’ brings the streets of Barcelona to life—all too literally—and includes the following stellar line: “The English were cementing their bad reputation by singing in the street.” Sorry.
The longest story in the collection, by a way, is ‘Kids Who Come Back’, in which a beleaguered government worker is haunted by the memory of a disappeared girl, too beautiful to have simply been spirited into the ether. Although excellent, after the brevity and concision of the surrounding stories, it felt just a touch too meandering. Yet it’s still better than the best stories I’ve read in other collections.
Enríquez’s prose (in Megan McDowell’s characteristically smooth translation) (she’ll hate how generic that observation was) is bewitching, deceptively chatty and all too casual for the content, but utterly well-balanced, pitched just right to keep you reading even when an unrelenting dread starts to set in. And despite mostly staying away from real spine-tingling, nerve-jangling gruesomeness, I don’t think I’ve ever had as visceral reaction to a book as in ‘No Birthdays or Baptisms’ when it’s revealed that Marcela has sliced off her own…well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
For a collection so blanketed by paranoia and unease, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is compulsively readable and remarkably well-crafted—impressive, considering this was Enríquez’s short story debut back in 2009. A must-read.
Note: I requested and was provided with a review copy of The Dangers of Smoking in Bed from Hogarth Press.
About Mariana Enríquez
Mariana Enríquez (Buenos Aires, 1973) is an Argentine novelist, short story writer, essayist, and journalist, with over half a dozen books to her name. To date, two are available in English translation.
Other Books by Mariana Enríquez: Nuestra parte de noche (Anagrama, 2019), Things We Lost in the Fire (Hogarth Press, 2017; trans. Megan McDowell), Alguien camina sobre tu tumba (Antílope, 2019)