Tales of Loneliness, Stories of Syncretism

When the 2022 National Book Awards were announced late last fall, I had a rooting interest in the “Translated Literature” category. One of the finalists was Scholastique Mukasonga’s Kibogo, translated by Mark Polizzotti and published by Archipelago Books. At the time, I was reading Kibogo with a group of students, and we had been enjoying it. How neat it would be, I thought, if I could tell them that the book we were reading had just won a major national award.

On the night of the announcement, I had the less than exciting ceremony streaming in the background while I worked. I perked up at the crucial moment, but alas, it was not to be: instead of Mukasonga’s book, the winner was Samanta Schweblin’s Seven Empty Houses, translated by Megan McDowell for Oneworld Publications. Naturally, I was disappointed. But on the other hand, I figured, if it had beaten out Kibogo, then Seven Empty Houses must be a pretty good book. So I resolved to read it eventually.

Having finally done so, I must confess to considerable surprise at the selection. Seven Empty Houses is not a terrible book (if I may damn it with faint praise). But neither is it particularly interesting. It consists of seven stories, all dealing with … odd people. In “None of That,” a daughter accompanies her elderly mother, who routinely enters the homes of wealthier strangers, searches them for objects known only to her, and departs with selected possessions. The narrator of “My Parents and My Children” is alarmed when his ex-wife brings their children to see his parents, who cavort around the yard stark naked, spraying one another with the garden hose and inviting their grandchildren to join in the fun when the parents’ backs are turned.

The collection is partially redeemed by the middle story, by far the longest in the volume, “Breath From the Depths,” which offers a sobering portrayal of an elderly woman’s descent into dementia. Lola, consumed by the thought that she must prepare for death, spends her days packing her and her husband’s belongings into carefully labeled boxes for eventual disposal. Although he remains the more mentally competent, she does not trust him to do anything properly. When a woman and her teenage son move in next door, the old man strikes up a friendship with the boy, much to the dismay of Lola, who feels a mixture of jealousy and anxiety at this small corner of their life not firmly under her control. After her husband unexpectedly dies, she is left to struggle with her diminishing mental powers. Lola’s receding sanity is both pathetic and frightening, and Schweblin skillfully allows the pieces of the story to emerge in a fragmented way that matches Lola’s own psyche.

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