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Review: Strong, tormented women broadcast nightmare visions from Spain

On the Shelf

Rabbit Island

By Elvira Navarro, translated by Christina MacSweeney
Two Lines: 184 pages, $19.95

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In the kitchen of a dowdy hotel in Spain, a woman cooks uninspired dishes for strangers, her salary barely covering room and board and her employer just as chintzy with the restaurant’s ingredients. “She wasn’t even allowed to add a splash of olive oil to the pan to brighten the dish,” Elvira Navarro writes in “The Top Floor,” a standout story in the Spanish novelist’s haunting new collection, “Rabbit Island.” “Her features were so average, so unremarkable, that, on the rare occasion when she left the kitchen, the guests never noticed that a living being was crossing the dining room.”

The woman’s nights are a little more interesting. Her dreams are overtaken by the apparent dreams of hotel workers and guests. In fact, she begins to think her room has “some magical power that enabled the dreamscapes to ascend the stairs to invade her head.” A member of the Brazilian delegation staying in the hotel dreams of crocodiles. A guest suffers the death of her son from stomach cancer. It’s a lot! If she quit her job, perhaps “everything would return to normal,” but normal would be nothing more than greasy sausage and bad TV.

In response to political and social upheaval, Franz Kafka turned Gregor Samsa into a bug. Borges imagined an endless full-scale map. More recently, Carmen Maria Machado fine-tunes fairy tales to make sense of a world that feels increasingly like a wolf at the door. Navarro — who in 2010 was named one of Granta’s top writers in Spanish under 35 — seems to be responding to Europe’s crushing economic stratification, its reckoning with refugees and its crisis of cultural authenticity in an increasingly homogenized and unreal world.

One thing that distinguishes Navarro in this genre of social nightmare fiction is that her central characters are almost entirely women — all smart and strong but deeply flawed, and more human for it. For another, she is a master anatomist of class and, particularly, money — both its power and the maddening indignity of its lack.

“Gerardo’s Letters” is the rollicking story of a strong woman who can’t quite bear to break up with a pathetic boyfriend. “He got wet standing in the drizzle, he’s shivering and looks so vulnerable and patient that I calm down. It’s just two days. Two days and it’ll be finished.”

Gerardo has been caught looking through her phone, having long suspected that she was cheating — even before she actually was. We are in another weird, menacing hotel, with “the night pulsing outside.” “Not so bad, is it?” Gerardo asks. What she wants to say is: “It’s disgusting.”

Our unease deepens with the intensity of her loathing: for him, for the hotel, for anything other than utter stillness. There’s something of Denis Johnson here, but Johnson’s heroes are all men. “There are many nights when I lie awake,” she thinks, waiting for him to go to sleep, for the sheer pleasure of not hearing him, the pleasure of his silence.”

Soon, she is at the bar, drinking beer at an “incredible rate to achieve a pleasant state of alcohol-induced passivity as quickly as possible, so that I won’t feel self-conscious.” The rest of the story unfurls in specific, droll and confusing lurches. Has she been murdered and cut up into pieces and put in the bar fridge? This woman’s reckoning with the bizarre question of her own possible death and dismemberment feels as nihilistic as it does brave, perhaps even spiritual. You’d want to party with her.

These women are, quite simply, too strong, too strange and too interesting for Navarro’s Europe, which is somehow both foreboding and dreadfully dull. Like a smarter, more upsetting episode of “Black Mirror,” the story “Memorial” introduces a woman whose mother has just died. At that very moment, a Facebook account sends a friend request with an obscure snapshot — the daughter’s favorite photo of her mom. “The itch to find out who was behind this macabre initiative and the authority of her mother’s image… won out over common sense.”

Common sense seems beside the point. A series of photos and audio appear on the account, alluring for a bereaved woman but ultimately too creepy to bear. She unfriends. But then feels an agonizing longing. “She returned to the damned account, clicked on the wall, hesitated for a few seconds, and then wrote, screamed: Mom!”

The title story would make a juicy adaptation for someone stormy and horrible, like Shia LaBoeuf. “Rabbit Island’s” male lead paddles his canoe one night across an unnamed city’s muddy river, where he finds a crummy island and “decided to inhabit it.” This coded language, the weird flex of a citizen’s power, the audacity to colonize an unloved space? It curdles.

He brings over a bunch of rabbits, which commence devouring the island’s birds. “[E]ating the flesh was something the rabbits did from necessity, reluctantly, as though their little minds rejected their cruelty.” But “once their initial scruples were overcome, they didn’t even leave the bones.” Then… they eat each other. Robinson Crusoe, meet Dr. Frankenstein.

Like the best work of our modern satirists and fabulists, none of Navarro’s stories is particularly easy to read: minds fail, animals cannibalize, a woman locks a puppy in a ham-curing room. In “Gums,” a mouth wound on a new husband seems to have turned into a monster. But even Navarro’s darkness offers at least a bit of light, however unnatural or perverse.

Seeking her own version of freedom, that cook whose dreams were breached starts to sleep on a bench downtown. She misses work. She misses work again. Soon, she’s sleeping under an overpass. The dreams of everyone in the city invade. Once again, a woman is asked to carry all the weight. This time, she refuses. A child approaches, but before he gets near, “she got to her feet and left.”

Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”




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