Review: Mouthful of Birds by Samantha Schweblin

Mouthful of BIrds

Samantha Schweblin’s stunning short story collection Mouthful of Birds offers 20 wonderfully bizarre and pleasantly dark tales.

I first came across Schweblin’s writing when I shadow judged her first novel, Fever Dream, for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. The book was mesmerising and I was astonished at the brevity and precision of Schweblin’s short but lingering prose.

Her collection of short stories, Mouthful of Birds, is the long-awaited follow up that has earned similar praise; it was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2019 and The New York Times described her tales as “[spiralling] into their own circle of madness”.

What’s it all about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

The crunch of a bird’s wing.

Abandoned by the roadside, newlywed brides scream with rage as they are caught in the headlights of a passing car.

A cloud of butterflies, so beautiful it smothers.

Unearthly and unexpected, these stories burrow their way into your psyche with the feel of a sleepless night. Every shadow and bump in the dark takes on huge implications, leaving the pulse racing – blurring the line between the real and the strange.

What’s good about it?

This collection is bound by several recurring themes. Holes (digging them, avoiding them, fearing them); violence to and by animals; and women (their bodies, their roles, their value). Schweblin uses each motif – and others – to explore relationships, social structures and, frankly, just bizarre scenarios.

The opening story, ‘Headlights’, is one of the strongest in the book and has a deftly delivered twist at the end. The title story ‘Mouthful of Birds’ is shocking both in its plot and vivid, visceral descriptive prose. ‘Olingiris’ creates a distinctively Attwood-esque dystopian world in which women have the hairs ritually plucked from their legs. All are exquisitely dark and deliciously disturbing.

Schweblin doesn’t waste a word in her tightly crafted stories. This collection is immediate and fierce in its impact and takes the reader straight into the world of the tale without allowing them to catch their breath. Take this opening from ‘Head Against Concrete’:

If you pound a person’s head against concrete – even if you’re doing it only so they’ll come to their senses – you will very likely end up hurting them. This is something my mother explained to me early on, the day I pounded Fredo’s head on the asphalt of the school playground.

The stories demand multiple readings to really get to the heart of their meaning – Schweblin clearly revels in leaving open ended or ambiguous conclusions for her readers to unravel. There is a joy in that; I loved seeing how each of the unusual scenarios would end. I was satisfied, shocked and confused in equal measure by the 20 tales.

What’s not so good about it?

Schweblin’s writing sometimes slips too far into the opaque, giving very little clarity about the meaning or resolution of her stories. That will frustrate some readers while giving others a freedom not afforded by many writers.

Some of the stories in the collection are too short to realise their full potential and others indulge in obscurity too much to offer satisfying conclusions.

The sharp prose, dark plots and bizarre circumstances of these 20 tales make Mouthful of Birds an extraordinary collection of writing and imaginative achievement. Schweblin is one of the most exciting and vibrant writers of the day and this work cements her reputation as such.

Mouthful of Birds is available now from OneWorld Books.

Image credit: The New York Times

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