Rabbit Island, Elvira Navarro (Two Lines 978-1-949641-09-7, $19.95, 184pp, tp) February 2021.
Rabbit Island is Spanish writer Elvira Navarro’s first collection to be translated into English by the always terrific Christina MacSweeney. While this is my first encounter with her work, two of Navarro’s novels – A Working Woman and Happy City, both of which have won numerous awards – have also been published in English.
Rabbit Island consists of 11 pieces that view the ordinary and the banal from a twisted, surreal and sinister perspective. The latter is evident in the opening piece, “Gerardo’s Letters”, where a woman wanting to break-up with her boyfriend (the eponymous Gerardo) instead takes a trip with him to Talavera. There’s an air of menace and desperation from the moment they arrive at their accommodation – a hostel outside of town – and are met at the front desk by a short man with “greasy hair, grubby clothes… [and] big clumsy hands with dirty nails.” Navarro cleverly keeps the story’s ominous tone on a long simmer, drawing tension from the couples’ strained relationship playing out against a disgusting backdrop.
Revulsion also plays a vital part in “Gums”, which, like “Gerardo’s Letters”, involves a couple on holiday. They head to the beautiful beaches of Lanzarote to celebrate their honeymoon; however, when Ismael, the husband, experiences pain in his gums, the story takes a lurch toward the horrific and Kafkaesque. There are two scenes that stand-out. One involves the nauseating consumption of limpets. “I’d think about leeches as I watched him chew the tough flesh… and which when raw, looked just like Ismael’s infected gums.” Later on in the story, the narrator kisses her husband, whose gums and teeth have mutated into something resembling an insect. “He began some strange form of smooching that consisted of sucking in his cheeks to stimulate his salivary glands and transferring the putrid liquid to my mouth, making me salivate too.”
“Gums” is undoubtedly Rabbit Island‘s most graphic story, however there is a visceral, horrific quality to several of the pieces here. In “Strychnine”, a writer grows a paw from her ear, which sprouts “toes with small mouths”. The title piece is about a lonely man who brings rabbits to an isolated island to scare off the birds, only for those rabbits to become cannibals, feeding on their young. “Regression” gives us the startling image of an obese grandmother, smelling of burnt eggplant, floating in the corner of a room, while in one of my favourite pieces, “Myotragus”, an Archduke’s search for an extinct mouse-goat reveals his fetish to hunt down and rape young girls.
Navarro’s best stories, though, twist our mundane existence out of shape or, as Navarro puts it, the “vital strangeness” of everyday things, including our connection to other people. The powerful and poignant “Memorial” involves a woman dealing with the recent death of her mother, disturbed to find a Facebook page set-up in her mother’s name (spelt backwards) featuring photos, intimate and personal, she has never seen before. And in the extraordinary, albeit bleak “The Top Floor Room”, a woman employed at a hotel where she also lives, begins to share the confronting dreams of the people she encounters and works with.
While the stories in Rabbit Island do make for discomfiting, sometimes queasy reading, Navarro, with unvarnished and direct prose, compels the reader to see the world anew, to recognise and even embrace the surreal nature of our existence.
This review and more like it in the April 2021 issue of Locus.
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