‘Things We Lost in the Fire’ Misplaces the Macabre

3.5 Stars

Things we Lost cover
In “Things We Lost in the Fire,” Argentinian author Mariana Enriquez’s new collection of short stories, disturbing and eerie tales of Argentinian life seep onto every page. "Things We Lost in the Fire" is a macabre collection of stories narrating the lives of Argentinians from very different backgrounds and lifestyles. The collection is strikingly entertaining, but instead of facilitating a connection to the characters with its pithy emotion, it eats into you with its morbidity. While the stories often incorporate the supernatural in some way, they are far from being what one consider “ghost stories.” The paranormal elements are more additions than they are the cruxes of the stories, and as such often feel forced. The terse endings and abstract nature of the problems the characters face leave you wanting more.

"Things We Lost in the Fire" is rooted in escapism and people’s ambivalence regarding the circumstances in which they live. We see the lives of the various characters through a lens of numbness and an odd, somewhat misplaced sense of contempt. “The Dirty Kid,” the opening story, lays the foundation for what this book could have been: a deep and introspective look into how Argentina’s troubled past is shaping its present generations. The story provides a glimpse into the life of a fairly well-off journalist who chooses to reside in one of the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. It is a tale of how poverty can affect more than those who are directly affected by it. Most importantly, it is a commentary on should-haves and regrets. It comes off as the foundation for the book, providing relatable peeks and glimpses of raw emotion through the development of the relationship between the dirty kid and the unnamed main character. From saints of death to the gritty underground of Buenos Aires’ subways, “The Dirty Kid” provides intense narratives with a deep social context.

The social commentaries in the stories following “The Dirty Kid,” however, do not share this style as much. While still macabre, grotesque, and emotionally gripping, the stories often add ghostly or paranormal elements that undermine, or conversely, magnify the problems facing the characters. This technique gives the stories an aura of ghastliness and makes for a very interesting read, but the paranormality of the situations often takes away from the problems at hand by making them seem unfixable or inexplicable. The plights of the characters are often undercut by this supernatural component even when the message and moral of the story are otherwise strong.

Rather than letting the problems be human ones that require insight and introspection to solve, the author abstracts the problems from the characters through paranormal instances which diminish the impact of the characters’ actions, like in the story “Adela’s House.” While Adela has a compelling backstory and the plot is developed effectively, it is difficult to feel empathy for the supporting characters and their struggles due to the dehumanization of their problems. This comes from the fascination that the characters have with an abandoned house located in the neighborhood where they live. The connection one makes with the characters, particularly Adela, causes a feeling of empathy that diminishes throughout the story with the unveiling of the house’s paranormal side. This fundamentally detracts from that connection, and because of that it is difficult to truly perceive the quandaries in which the characters end up.

Aside from the menacing tone, the stories are captivating, interesting, and just disturbing enough to keep you up at night. Approached from the viewpoint of a one-off read, they are delightful and leave the reader wanting more. However, by the same token, this disparateness leaves one looking for extensive meaning where there may not be. Mariana Enriquez is a wonderful storyteller with terrific prose and a wild imagination. The collection as such did not live up to the potential that the individual stories carried with them. The disconnectedness of the stories ultimately makes them fall flat—allowing the reader to abstract him- or herself from the lives of the people in each one. The manifestation of problems as paranormal happenings provides a fascinating read, and fans of the horror genre will not be disappointed by the twists and turns evoked throughout the collection. Ultimately though, upon closing the cover, something crucial to the coherency of the stories is missing.