{ Short sto­ries }

The Guardian - Review - - Charts -

by Mar­i­ana En­ríquez, trans­lated by Megan McDow­ell, Por­to­bello, £8.99

Ar­gen­tinian writer En­ríquez’s first book to ap­pear in English is grue­some, vi­o­lent, up­set­ting – and bright with bril­liance. The sto­ries are filled with peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing bod­ily trauma, of­ten self-inflicted.

A school­girl yanks out her fin­ger­nails in re­sponse to “what the man with slicked-back hair made her do”. A boy who jumps in front of a train is oblit­er­ated so thor­oughly that just his left arm re­mains be­tween the tracks, “like a greet­ing or mes­sage”. In the ti­tle story, women be­gin to set fire to them­selves in re­sponse to male vi­o­lence. The re­lent­less grotes­querie avoids be­com­ing kitsch by re­main­ing grounded in its set­ting: a mod­ern Ar­gentina still coming to terms with decades of vi­o­lent dic­ta­tor­ship.

The ef­fect is so im­mer­sive that the de­tails be­gin to feel like the reader’s own night­mares. The sto­ries here are not for­mally con­nected but to­gether they cre­ate a sen­si­bil­ity as dis­tinc­tive as that found in Denis John­son’s Je­sus’ Son or Daisy John­son’s Fen. They are a por­trait of a world in frag­ments, a mir­ror­ball made of ra­zor blades. John Self

This debut novel fol­lows the lives of the ma­jor play­ers in New York’s 1980s drag ball scene, made fa­mous by Jen­nie Liv­ingston’s 1990 film Paris Is Burn­ing. With an ad­mirable ear for the slang of the LGBT un­der­ground it de­picts, the book imag­ines how they came to terms with their gen­ders and sex­u­al­i­ties, found their com­mu­ni­ties, ne­go­ti­ated the pres­sures of racism and queer-bash­ing and con­fronted the ter­ri­fy­ing emer­gence of HIV/Aids.

It is es­pe­cially strong on de­tail­ing the sad­ness of queer life. Whether black or His­panic, these are peo­ple who live on the pe­riph­ery of so­ci­ety, shoplift­ing or do­ing sex work to sur­vive.

This is not a bleak novel, how­ever – far from it. The scenes of love and sup­port be­tween the char­ac­ters have a kind­ness that more than matches the sad­ness, and the di­a­logue, pep­pered with early 80s disco or TV ref­er­ences and “Spanglais” di­alect, is fre­quently hi­lar­i­ous. The House of Im­pos­si­ble Beau­ties does not pro­vide full bi­ogra­phies of its lead­ing fig­ures, but it does of­fer a con­vinc­ing in­sight into the world in which they lived. Juliet Jac­ques

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