The Delicate Boundaries of Life in “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed” – Chicago Review of Books


Lauded Argentine journalist and author of Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enríquez again delivers intrigue and brutality in her latest story collection, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

Stories of spirits and disappearances collectively address the mystery of loss through narratives that are as gripping as they are chilling. The not-quite-horror tales address death while showcasing the intensity and resiliency of the human soul, particularly souls of women.

Enríquez’s female characters are often lost or outcast, but find solace and community in odd places. One develops a fetish for strangers’ irregular heartbeats; one manages a database of missing children cases. A young girl develops agoraphobia after a visit to a witch that ruins her young life. A child finds the bones of a lost baby in her backyard, and the spirit returns later in her life and tightens its grip.

“Where Are You, Dear Heart?” is one of the collection’s most memorable stories with its first-person sincerity and desperation describing the heartbeat fetish. After acquiring a CD of abnormal heart rhythms, the narrator admits, “Nothing had ever brought me so much joy. I guess that what normal men and women feel when they hear their preferred gender moaning in pleasure, I felt when I heard those ruined hearts beat.”

From Buenos Aires to Barcelona, Enríquez spans morality and mortality, youth and obsession, poverty and myth. A neighborhood is ruined by a curse after its inhabitants mistreat a visitor. In “Kids Who Come Back,” children who have died or disappeared begin to return to Buenos Aires, terrifying the community of already mourning families. These strange doubles of the lost don’t behave human, and everyone waits once again for something more to happen. “Meat” tells of two young girls who are so devoted to a rock star that they disgust their community, after his death, by performing a task that they believe he wanted them to do.

The people we think we have pegged as crazy are perhaps just “incarnations of the city’s madness,” a character says in “Rambla Triste.” Perhaps thinking that humans are exempt from certain horrors is always our first mistake.

The title story is the book’s shortest and in just a few pages delivers a tragic glimpse into a lonely woman’s existence. Experiments with fire point to the delicate boundaries of life.

These stories play with reality, questioning the very fabric of the ingrained beliefs and infrastructures that hold us up. They reveal how frighteningly precarious they really are.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed
By Mariana Enríquez
Published January 12, 2021


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