The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez review – a South American Shirley Jackson


When it comes to book reviewing cliches, the word “haunting” is surely among the tattiest, yet Mariana Enríquez’s newly translated short story collection restores to that tired adjective all its most mysterious, fearful strangeness.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed shares the exuberantly macabre sensibilities of her English-language debut, Things We Lost in the Fire, which it in fact predates. Its dozen tales, each as pitchy as the next, conjure up spirits, demons and dead babies, turning them loose in bougie shopping districts, seaside hotels and slums.

There is nothing wraithlike about these apparitions. Instead, they acquire a pushy, malevolent physicality, not so much ghosting Enríquez’s generally female protagonists as possessing them, driving narratives that work a similarly tenebrous magic on the reader, even as gross-out details are layered on like a dare.

In the opening story, Angelita Unearthed, a woman tries to throttle the reeking spectre of her infant great-aunt. Elsewhere, adolescent crushes prove lethal and exorcism reveals deadly family jealousies. The collection’s long centrepiece, Kids Who Come Back, is set in the author’s native Buenos Aires, to which lost and “disappeared” children start returning en masse.

Pornography, paedophilia, necrophilia – nothing is out of bounds here, but there is jet-black humour, too. In Rambla Triste, Barcelona attracts hipster Argentinians and then holds them sinisterly captive. Where Are You, Dear Heart?, the story of a woman with a fetish for heartbeats, skewers romantic sentimentality in a gruesome, wickedly deadpan ending.

Throughout, occult horror is embedded in reality, however warped that turns out to be. Ouija boards and curses exist alongside political instability and clouds of tear gas, therapy and pills. “They’re like incarnations of the city’s madness, like escape valves,” a character says of the phantoms she sees. Enríquez’s supernatural motifs similarly index social inequality, sexual violence, powerlessness.

She’s already attracted comparisons with Shirley Jackson, but lashings of local mysticism and a flair for transgressive imagery make her an arrestingly original talent. Do all of these stories come off? Not quite. Nevertheless, it’s a collection amply deserving of its spot on the longlist for this year’s International Booker prize.