In her first work of fiction to be translated, Mariana Enriquez combines the supernatural and surreal with the horrific and terrible that is reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic and macabre works of fiction, in the short story collection, Things We Lost in the Fire. Full of political undertones that touch on Argentina’s transition to democracy and the resulting changes in lifestyle, Enriquez captures history and demonstrates the struggles of living in an ever-changing society full of poverty, violence, and abuse. Although Things We Lost in the Fire is surreal and supernatural, full of ghost stories, apparitions and mental terrors, it is also incredibly gruesome and brutal. From horrific tales of incredibly gruesome murder, to the exploration of haunted houses and hidden secrets, abuse, drug use, and homelessness found in everyday life, Things We Lost in the Fire is an unforgettable collection that is as enlightening as it is dark.
This review contains spoilers and quotes from the book.
Featuring stories that are narrated by women in different points of view, Things We Lost in the Fire is a heart-stopping collection that will test your ability to deal with the terrifying and gruesome. From horrific tales of murder that may or may not be a figment of the narrator in question’s imagination, including the heart-breaking death of a cat and the decapitation and dismemberment of a small child, to a retelling of a perverse murderer on a bus tour meant to be a tourist attraction, this collection is not for the faint at heart. Despite the horrific details that Enriquez provides throughout the collection where abuse, violence and murder are concerned, there are tales that are terrifying in other ways as well. Supernatural occurrences and unsettling situations, including a visit to a house that appears dilapidated and abandoned at first glance, but ends up being a haunted and incredibly disturbing crime scene, to a courtyard that holds a dangerous secret, and even an unhealthy obsession with a skull, will leave readers scrambling for answers.
While many of the stories featured in Things We Lost in the Fire are absolutely terrifying, they touch on important topics, including a history of poverty, violence, abuse, and fear within contemporary Argentina. Although gruesome at times, a number of the stories touch on topics of anxiety, depression and even empowerment, that not only bring political concerns within Argentinian history to light, but that also bring social concerns, fears and everyday illnesses that are often overlooked to the forefront as important topics of conversation.
Although the mysterious and macabre definitely make each and every story in this collection memorable, three in particular stood out to me for different reasons – “The Neighbor’s Courtyard” for its commentary on depression and gruesome horror reminiscent of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore where cats are concerned; “Green Red Orange” for its commentary on anxiety and its obsession with strange elements of Japanese culture; and, “Things We Lost in the Fire”, an incredibly horrific tale of female empowerment that involves the burning of women.
In “The Neighbor’s Courtyard”, the narrator, a woman who suffers from depression, witnesses a strange occurrence while admiring the beauty of her new home. Having lost her job as a social worker due to a stressful situation, the woman feels a need to help children in order to redeem herself. One day, while in her courtyard, she glimpses a ghastly sight – a small foot locked in a chain that appears to be pacing back and forth in the adjacent courtyard. After confiding in her husband and expressing her concerns, she is ignored as her husband views the event as a product of her depression, believing her mind to be broken.
Just because she’d been depressed, like so many people were, and because she took medication – in very low doses – Miguel thought she was sick.
Miguel had admitted to her that in his opinion, except for serious illnesses, all emotional problems could be resolved by force of will.
– excerpt from Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire
Shortly afterward, her husband leaves, finding her to be too unstable. Compelled to prove that she was not just imagining things, the narrator makes her way over to the neighbor’s house when he is not home. Inside, the house appears abandoned – food has been left to rot in the pantry, the electricity does not work, and everything inside appears untouched. The unsettling situation is made worse when she finds a chain lying on the couch, along with a number of horrifying documents. Fear causes her to flee from the scene, only to find herself face to face with a horrifyingly disfigured boy in her bedroom, who assaults her cat, devouring it as she watches in horror and pain.
Although incredibly grotesque and open ended, leaving the reader to decide whether or not she made it out alive, “The Neighbor’s Courtyard” touches on the idea of depression as something that is often looked down upon within society as a whole. Not only that, but mental illness in general is scoffed at as something that is considered a weakness of the mind, an idea that continues in a story detailing a shut-in in “Green Red Orange”.
A depressed and anxious man locks himself in his room entirely in “Green Red Orange”, which provides commentary not only on the strange aspects of Japanese culture, but also on mental illness, as well as the power of the internet as a means of communicating with the world at large. While the story itself is short, I found it incredibly interesting that it included multiple aspects of Japanese culture, despite being set in Argentina. Not only is the idea of the extreme recluse mentioned in the idea of the hikikomori, but interesting facts about Japanese folklore and ghost categorization are mentioned throughout the story.
You’re a hikikomori. You know about them, right? They’re Japanese people who lock themselves in their rooms and their families support them. They don’t have any mental problems, it’s just that things are unbearable for them: the pressure of university, having a social life, those kinds of things.
– excerpt from Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire
Things take an incredibly morbid turn in “Things We Lost in the Fire” as women light themselves on fire in order to make a statement within society. After a number of cases of physical and emotional domestic abuse, in which men burn women by pouring alcohol on them in an elaborate scheme that places the blame on women, women begin to take a stand against abuse, and society in general, by burning themselves alive.
The grotesque form of empowerment allows women to act of their own accord. By forming a community of survivors and choosing to disfigure themselves permanently, they are asserting dominance against set beauty standards. Furthermore, the act itself takes power away from abusive men and gives it to women. Despite the horrific details, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is a powerful story that touches on abuse and violence within society.
While the supernatural elements seem to be the star of the show in many of the short stories included in Things We Lost in the Fire that create feelings of disgust and horror, the true horror to be found within this collection comes from the consequences of a society dealing with political change.
As Enriquez has said herself, the stories here have something of the supernatural to them, but the fear comes more from police, neighborhoods, poverty, violence and men.
– excerpt from Mariana Enqriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire
Full of morbid scenes, surreal circumstances, and terrifyingly detailed descriptions of abuse and death, Things We Lost in the Fire is a compelling take on the short story that blends Haurki Murakami’s love of the surreal and unknown, with Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre tone and horrific circumstances. Providing criticism and truth surrounding political changes in Argentina, Mariana Enriquez’s collection is a frightfully enlightening masterpiece that deserves to be read.