Review: The Houseguest and Other Stories by Amparo Dávila

Reading Amparo Dávila’s stories is like accepting an invitation for tea at a haunted house. It starts out ordinary, mundane even, and before you know it, the key turns in the lock and you are trapped.

Dávila is the Mexican queen of the uncanny. This paranoid feeling of inevitable tragedy embeds itself in every one of Dávila’s masterful stories, which manage to blend both the real and imagined horrors of daily life. From a man forced to take care of his late brother’s demonic pets to a rich housewife forced to live with her husband’s shadowy houseguest, Dávila’s stories center around average people who one could easily imagine encountering on the street. It is only once one is drawn into this seemingly ordinary landscape that Dávila twists the tale with elegant force, causing it to tear apart in shocking and grotesque ways.

It elicits a haunting feeling which lingers long after reading, made of equal parts playful absurdity and painful reality, the sort which is reminiscent of Cortazar’s and Poe’s work, as well as Emily Dickinson’s, while retaining a peculiar flavor all its own. For the true power of Dávila’s stories lies in their sublime ambiguity. Even after their shocking conclusions, one is left breathless, unsure as to what was haunted: the narrator or their world.

For instance, in “Musique Concrète” a woman’s health starts to deteriorate after she learns about her husband’s affair. She becomes obsessed and unwell until she finally confesses to her dear friend what is causing her to lose sleep: her husband’s mistress is a toad which visits her in the night. Or “Fragment of a Diary” in which a man chooses to become an artist of suffering, spending his days in his building’s staircase, searching for new and horrifying ways to cause himself pain, such as destroying the one thing which brings him joy.

Both refreshingly unique and exquisitely timeless, Dávila’s stories are an unquestionable marvel, bound to satisfy readers with their unyielding imagination and piercing cruelty. And while each story ends on a shocking note, by the end of the collection, what is most shocking is the fact that The Houseguest and Other Stories is Dávila’s first translation into English.
Thanks to translators Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson, however, the work was well worth the wait. Capturing the directness and clarity of the original Spanish, Harris and Gleeson’s translation is smooth and graceful, preserving the universality and approachability of Dávila’s work without losing any of its electricity. Thereby ensuring that the English-speaking readers discovering Dávila’s work for the first time will treasure it for many years to come.

Photo courtesy of New Directions.

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