A taut, exquisite page-turner vibrating with existential distress and cumulative dread.
Schweblin’s English-language debut, translated by the eminently capable McDowell, plays out as a tense, sustained dialogue in an emergency clinic somewhere in the Argentinian countryside between a dying woman named Amanda and her dispassionate interlocutor, David, who, we quickly ascertain, is a child but seems to be neither her child nor any clear relation to her. At David’s ever more insistent prompting, Amanda recounts a series of events from the apparently recent past, but as he pushes her to recall whatever trauma has landed her in her terminal state, a struggle for narrative control ensues. Though Amanda gradually gains the power to tell her story in her own way—despite David’s frequent protestations that she's dwelling on irrelevant details that won’t help her understand her circumstances—the impotence and inchoate dangers that underscore the conversation in the clinic ricochet throughout the larger story being told, of what brought her there and why David is with her. Even with the small freedom to tell the deathbed tale she wants to tell, she moves inexorably in the retelling toward the moment when death became inevitable, just as time, in the clinic, creeps closer to the realization of that death. While the book resides in the realm of the uncanny, its concerns are all too real. Once the top blows off Schweblin’s chest of horrors, into which we’d been peeking through a masterfully manipulated crack, what remains is an unsettling and significant dissection of maternal love and fear, of the devastation we’ve left to the future, and of our inability to escape or control the unseen and unimagined threats all around us.
In a literary thriller of the highest order, Schweblin teases out the underlying anxieties of being vulnerable and loving vulnerable creatures and of being an inhabitant of a planet with an increasingly uncertain future.