Dark­ness comes to light with un­canny flair

Lucy Sc­holes finds Span­ish au­thor Cristina Fernán­dez Cubas’s off-kil­ter Gothic short sto­ries re­mark­able but not for the faint-hearted

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Cristina Fernán­dez Cubas Peter Owen World Se­ries Dh47 It doesn’t take the reader long to re­alise that noth­ing is quite what it seems in Cristina Fernán­dez Cubas’s short story col­lec­tion Nona’s Room. The book – the first of Cubas’s work to be trans­lated into English, by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Si­mon Deefholts – is an in­vi­ta­tion to step through the look­ing glass. The slight shift in per­spec­tive that this en­tails is all that’s needed to ex­pose the black­ness lurk­ing all around – from ac­tual mon­sters hid­den be­hind closed doors to the hor­rors of strange tricks played by un­sta­ble minds.

In the story with which the col­lec­tion opens (and from which it also takes its ti­tle), a teenage girl strug­gles with the at­ten­tion given to her “spe­cial” sis­ter Nona, a de­scrip­tion that the girl comes to un­der­stand “didn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean some­thing good”. As it’s slowly re­vealed just how un­re­li­able a nar­ra­tor we’re deal­ing with here, what be­gins as a tale of seem­ingly or­di­nary sib­ling ri­valry soon morphs into some­thing much more dis­tress­ing. In­ter­est­ingly, the same topic rears its head in the con­clud­ing story, A Few Days with the Wahyes-Wahno. This time, how­ever, it’s adult sib­lings who play out the pat­tern of “bit­ter­ness and ha­tred” forged dur­ing their child­hoods. Un­con­sciously trans­mit­ting this model of in­ter­ac­tion from one gen­er­a­tion to the next, this jeal­ousy bub­bles along in the back­ground while a nar­ra­tive con­cern­ing their for­ma­tive years takes cen­tre stage. While their fa­ther lies gravely sick at home, the 13-year-old nar­ra­tor and her younger brother are sent to spend the summer with their aunt and un­cle, “to breathe the pure moun­tain air, eat fresh eggs and drink goat’s milk straight from the goat.” Of course, what this so-called ru­ral idyll ac­tu­ally of­fers them is far from a life of straight­for­ward, care­free sim­plic­ity.

Ado­les­cence, with all its emo­tional tur­bu­lence and phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion, nat­u­rally al­lies it­self with Cubas’s slightly off-kil­ter world­view. As such, when she turns her at­ten­tion to older pro­tag­o­nists, the ef­fect is slightly less suc­cess­ful. The ma­ture woman who checks her­self into a Madrid ho­tel in A Fresh Start ac­tu­ally en­coun­ters the op­po­site. Stuck in what ap­pears to be some kind of time warp, she finds her­self some­how re­liv­ing episodes from her youth: “To­day, the present has slipped into her past”. The story makes for dis­con­cert­ing read­ing, but it lacks the punch of some of the other tales. Not that this change of pace isn’t wel­come, if only to pro­vide some vari­a­tion on a modus operandi that might oth­er­wise come across as repet­i­tive. Nes­tled, for ex­am­ple, in be­tween two nar­ra­tives that deal in sub­tler shocks, is Chat­ting to Old Ladies. Of the six sto­ries in the col­lec­tion, this is the one that deals in more tra­di­tional hor­rors of Grimm’s fairy tales, al­beit with a con­tem­po­rary twist: Room meets Hansel and Gre­tel.

All the same, Cubas’s take on the Gothic is not quite like any­thing else I’ve read, not least be­cause of the ar­rest­ing cen­tral story in the col­lec­tion, In­te­rior with Fig­ure – which takes its name from a paint­ing by the 19th-cen­tury Italian artist Adri­ano Ce­cioni that fea­tures a young, scared-look­ing girl crouch­ing be­side a bed in a sparsely fur­nished room. By this point we’ve been lulled into as­sum­ing that what we’re read­ing are works of fic­tion, but no, this is some­thing else en­tirely: an ac­count of an un­nerv­ing en­counter that took place in Cubas’s own life (or so we’re led to be­lieve) is the “in­spi­ra­tion” for a story (or so she de­clares). But whether this is it, we can’t be quite sure. The girl in the paint­ing re­minds Cubas of a char­ac­ter in one of her sto­ries –Nona – she ex­plains, but there’s an­other girl here who piques her in­ter­est more: a jit­tery school­girl also visiting the art gallery. Rather than re-es­tab­lish­ing our con­nec­tion to the real, this fus­ing of fic­tion and ac­tu­al­ity right in the mid­dle of the book is sur­pris­ingly un­set­tling.

Phillips-Miles and Deefholts’s trans­la­tion breathes just the right amount of an­i­ma­tion into Cubas’s work. Fur­ther evo­ca­tion of the un­canny at­mos­phere that in­fuses the text, the lu­cid­ity of their prose sits glo­ri­ously at odds with what it’s de­scrib­ing. “It’s as if she’s not see­ing the same thing as ev­ery­one else,” says Cubas of the school­girl trans­fixed by the Ce­cioni paint­ing, “or at least not in the same way.” The strange creepi­ness of these sto­ries sug­gests the same might be said of Cubas her­self. She’s able to cut through re­al­ity and see some­thing else within– things the rest of us don’t, can’t or won’t al­low our­selves to see. Read­ing this col­lec­tion il­lu­mi­nates the dark­ness, but be pre­pared: it’s not a pretty pic­ture.

Lucy Sc­holes is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Lon­don. Set in Zanz­ibar in the 1970s when tourists have be­gun to ar­rive in droves and a young boy is un­set­tled by the break-up of his par­ents’ mar­riage. The ac­tion moves to Lon­don where Salim faces an­other form of iso­la­tion: mi­gra­tion. Gur­nah was short­listed for the Booker Prize for Par­adise in 1994.

Getty Im­ages

Italian artist Adri­ano Ce­cioni’s paint­ing In­te­rior with Fig­ure is so cru­cial to one of the sto­ries that it shares the ti­tle of the art­work. The tale is also one that blurs the line be­tween fic­tion and re­al­ity.

Nona’s Room

Gravel Heart Ab­dul­razak Gur­nah Blooms­bury, May 4

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