Thursday, March 20, 2014

This Strange Way of Dying by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This book is a collection of short stories and it’s rather unlike any I’ve read before.

In some ways I don’t think “stories” is the correct way to refer to these entries. None of them really conclude or have any real ending, most of them only have a little backstory but not one that goes back very far. Even plot is somewhat absent in most of them. What they are more are vignettes. Or photographs in literary form. Each story concentrates on creating a theme and atmosphere and they all do it incredibly well. They’re not meant to tell someone’s story, they’re not meant to advance a plot or even tell a story. They’re there to give us a snap shot into an event or part of an event, a glance into a person or creature’s life, a brief look at a legend or myth or superstition or fear and give us the full impact of that. I don’t think it’s about telling a story, it’s about artistically presenting an image, capturing a moment and portraying a theme, an emotion and a deep, unsettling darkness that permeates each and every one of these stories

And they are all very very good at that. Every story has the best atmosphere. It is creepy with a capital CREEP. What is alien is alien and the settings around Mexico and especially in Mexico City are really powerful. You get an excellent sense of time and place even though they’re only thumbnails in short stories, they’re very elegantly described – not overwritten but not sparse and very much aware that the atmosphere is vital for these stories.

All but one of these stories are set in Mexico and there’s a really good sense of the location in them. Culture, food, location beliefs are all really well mixed and presented into the stories as a natural part of them. There’s no sense of someone forcing inserts or clumsiness or “tour guide” elements where someone really wants you to look at the setting. It’s there, it’s always there, but it’s always there naturally. But more than just place and culture, many of these stories also bring in history, which is fascinating all of itself since so much of this history is so little known or studied outside Mexico. It certainly prompted me to do some reading to find the larger context that created these beautiful, eerie scenes.

And, of course, many of the stories are about Mexican folklore, mythology, beliefs and superstitions which are other elements that are rarely seen in the genre (or, if they are seen, it’s because a book or show has wanted to mine some foreign cultures for some “exotic” woo-woo without any backing). Because of the way these stories are written, the folklore fits in excellently and kept me fascinated and interested for a long time.

But, it has to be said, not for the whole book. I read this book from cover to cover in one sitting and I don’t think that’s ideal with this anthology. Because each story is more a setting capture/snapshot without a strong reliance on plot, by the end of the book I was losing interest. Kind of like going through a photo album of beautiful scenery – you can gasp at the beauty of it all, but eventually you’re going say “oh. Yay. Another mountain. Yes. Mountainous.”

Obviously and excellently, nearly all of these characters are Latino or Latina – most of them Latina. And the women who pervade this book are so different yet powerful all in very different ways. There’s the strong and confident, the enduring, the whimsical, the tragic, the determined, women who rise above their circumstances, women looking for a way out, women who have been beaten down but keep going, women who have suffered tragedy but won’t allow the men in their lives use that – or their mental illness – as an excuse to control them. They are truly excellent.

There’s only one reference to a GBLT person in all the stories – and it’s just that, a reference. And it involves dying tragically for another to witness so it pretty firmly comes down on the “no please don’t” side of inclusion.

In all this is an excellent book and a refreshing change from so much of what we normally see in the genre. I think it’s a great book to read in bite size pieces, a few stories here, a few there, picking a random one out when it appeals, rather than in one setting. Read three or four at a time and be transported by the atmosphere and folklore that so very rarely has the chance to be told.