A Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

I’ll make this short, as I don’t like to disparage authors or their hard work. Also, I sent my opinion out in Twitter and Instagram, so you may already know this.

I didn’t like A Mouthful of Birds.

This collection of short stories had an auspicious beginning. The first story, “Headlights”, tells of a bride abandoned by her husband while she’s still in her wedding dress standing by the side of a road. One has the idea that the field nearby is filled with abandoned brides who are screaming; near the end, a trail of headlights are seen coming back.

Another story, “Preserves”, has a pregnant woman not emotionally prepared to have her baby yet. After seeing a doctor, who has developed a solution, she spits an almond shaped object into a jar of fluid.

The story taking the title of the collection, “A Mouthful of Birds,” has a set of parents who do not know what to do with their daughter who thrives on eating birds. Alive and whole.

“The Test” is a horrible story about a man who must kill a dog to prove that he can follow orders and eventually kill a person. He bashes a dog over the head with a shovel, but doesn’t quite kill it. Instead, the dog is in agony, and the man learns he didn’t qualify because he hesitated when given the order to strike.

Each story is more upsetting then the previous one. I suppose you could say the writing is imaginative; it certainly is bizarre. But ultimately, the dark violence became overwhelming, and I came away from this book quite distraught. If literature reflects life, I am concerned about how Samanta Schweblin sees the world.

18 thoughts on “A Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Man Booker International Prize 2019)”

    1. I think almost everyone likes it better than I do. I am very particular when it comes to “darkness”; as Michael of Knowledge Lost says, it only works if it serves a purpose. And with A Mouthful of Birds it seemed to me that Schweblin’s purpose was to shock. Unless she really is that depressed.

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  1. Ah….just when I was contemplating the money I wasted buying Mouthful of Birds, 1streader gave me hope 😌 now remains reading this short story book. I will let you know how I liked/not liked the stories ❤

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  2. I can read some pretty strange, experimental, even dark stuff but it, as you say, must serve a purpose. This book sounded awful to me before and sounds no better now. But then, even positive reviews haven’t swayed me.

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    1. I think there are some of us who just do not want to invite darkness into our lives. I just saw that one member of our Shadow Jury loved this book, and of course, it is wonderful to have the freedom to read what we like. But, this collection was not for me. I like how you said even positive reviews haven’t swayed you.

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  3. Sounds like a very depressing read, filled with horror. It does not tempt me at all. Yes, I know some people like it, but like you, I don’t need these violent, dark undertones. Dark undertones can be very interesting, but these stories seem to border on the absurd.

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    1. Another member of the Shadow Jury, who has not read the collection yet, said she plans to read them one at a time (interspersed with other books), and I think that would make the stories much more palatable. All at once was certainly too intense for me, and, I suspect that even one at a time I would feel disturbed. There’s no way that the dog killing story could sit well with me. And, as you say, the absurdity…perhaps the girl eating birds alive was just as odd to her parents as some of the things kids do to their parents (tattoos, piercings, rebellions of any nature).

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  4. Curious. Sad and depressing too. The dog story in particular. It resembles, as I recall, part of the training of an SS man. They raise the dog and as part of their “training”, they have to kill it on command.

    Seeing that the author has a German surname, and that she currently lives in Berlin, I wonder if this is an old family story that she has recycled with a few nips and tucks here and there. Remember that many Nazis fled to Argentina and other South American locations when it became obvious that they were losing the war.

    I don’t blame you for not liking a whole book of such stories. Go for a bike ride, try on a new lipstick and give this book away soon.

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    1. Good idea, Abby! While the world is less than a perfect place, I see no point in further illuminating its evil.

      I’d rather do this:

      “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” Philippians 4:8 NLT

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  5. I’m sure I will die with this question in my head – why, oh, why are so many prize-winning (or nominated) books such downers? So sad or upsetting or just plain miserable. Maybe they are read and “enjoyed” by tougher souls than I. Thanks for the great review. I couldn’t read some of the snippets, though.

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    1. We are kindred spirits, Nan. And I suppose, to answer your question, there must be something about shock value. Of course, I am shocked about what is on plain old tv sometimes.

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    2. I agree, especially books who won the Man Booker Prize. Those I have read, not counting Hilary Mantel of course, are very strange. I can not really come to terms with them. I have read some nominated, but not winning, that I could relate more to. A prize that I find has good winners is the Costa Prize. I guess they have to go for originality and then you end up in a strange place.

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      1. I don’t think I’ve read anything for the Costa Prize; I’ll look into that. I surely have enjoyed books from Italy’s Strega Prize, and Japan’s Akutagawa Prize. I’m always willing to read for prizes! 😉

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  6. Your comments about this book make it sound a *bit* like Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, which also takes readers to some pretty dark places. Though his stories don’t offer easy redemptions, though, I think they are ultimately not despairing, whereas this collection does not sound like it brings us back again.

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    1. I would go so far as to call this book more than despairing; I think it is evil. Maybe it portrays the minds of wicked people’s darkest inclinations, and for that reason the readers who like it remain interested. But there is no place for any of these in my life. Every time I go back to the scoring sheet we use as a jury panel I mark it lower. Just my opinion, mind. Several people find this collection more worthy than I do, while all of us say there are stories that just “don’t work.” I guess that means aren’t effectively well written.

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