Daniel Haeusser reviews short works of SFT that appear both online and in print. He is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Canisius College, where he teaches microbiology and leads student research projects with bacteria and bacteriophage. He’s also an associate blogger with the American Society for Microbiology’s popular Small Things Considered. Daniel reads broadly in English and French, and his book reviews can be found at Reading1000Lives or Skiffy & Fanty. You can also connect with him on Goodreads or Twitter.
translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
grab a copy here or through your local library or independent bookstore
“Miracles happen and clairvoyance exists.”
This sentence concludes Elvira Navarro’s Rabbit Island as a fitting summation for her story collection. Navarro’s writing gleans its insights from inexplicable moments of the fantastic intruding on quotidian existence. Like Leonora Carrington, or Ethan Rutherford (recently read and reviewed so very much still in my mind), Navarro excels at capturing the hazy transition state between reality and the surreal. Similar to Carrington, Navarro often casts her stories with anguished female protagonists, but ones whose afflictions originate internally or by force of nature rather than a strict patriarchy. Similar to Rutherford, Navarro often focuses on interactions between couples or families, and recounts stories within stories. However, most of Navarro’s stories are set in her native contemporary Spain, with an international pan-European sensibility, compared to the North American home of Rutherford.
Rabbit Island represents the third of Navarro’s works to be translated into English, the first two being a pair of connected novellas in The Happy City and her meta-fictional novel A Working Woman. Christina MacSweeney, the translator of Rabbit Island, previously translated the novel for Two Lines Press to acclaim. MacSweeney does seemingly phenomenal work here as well. I cannot read the original Spanish, but the lyrical English prose in these stories flows evocatively and smoothly, contrasting nicely with the emotional distance of Navarro’s voice from her characters. The eleven stories of Rabbit Island frequently veer into emphasis of style and impressionism over plot; capturing that essence and stress through a different language is not a simple accomplishment.
With the opening “Gerardo’s Letters”, Navarro renders into the plot the uncertain, quasi-state realm bordering reality and delusion. This is a technique she’ll continually employ in the stories that follow. In this first case a woman on vacation with her boyfriend reflects on their infidelities and considers breaking up with him. She wavers in decision, observing him with detached indifference, and like a particle, never fully resolves into a final state. Navarro describes the woman’s thoughts and the couple’s actions with similar analytical detachment.
Characters having moments of stepping out of themselves to narrate and inspect their own mundane existence crops up repeatedly thoughout Rabbit Island, with a pronounced instance of it in the opening of “Strychnine”. An excerpt from this story is available to read on Lit Hub. Where the opening story hovers too much in the impressionistic realm with neither resolution nor eccentricities to make it stand out, “Strychnine” became one of my favorites in the collection. A woman discovers that an unsightly paw begins to grow out of her ear, dangling like a piece of jewelry. She therefore heads to a region where the cultural norm is wearing a hijab, which can cover her embarrassment and oddity. Like something from the New Weird genre, this short story spoke a lot more to me even amid ambiguities. Despite its strangeness, it rang familiar.
The stories that follow in the collection each continue to shine Navarro’s strengths to the reader through very different means. The title story of the collection is one of a few with a male protagonist, a ‘non-inventor’ who invents things already invented and takes a boat out to explore various uninhabited islands. Well, uninhabited – and unfrequented – by humans. On the island however, are lots of birds. Noisy, raucous birds and their poop. So, the man stands by the shore and yells at them. When the birds fail to respond by flying away, the man decides to release rabbits on the island with no food, hoping this will lead them to eating the birds. But he fails to consider what happens when the birds are then gone. “Rabbit Island” is part brilliant fable, built upon the strange responses to the bizarre that are common to Navarro’s stories. The biology here is very suspect, of course. But the humor of the absurd shines, helped by evoking thoughts of Monty Python’s killer rabbit, of course.
“Regression” is the first story that for me got beyond impressionism, strangeness, or alienation to touch on other emotions, especially bittersweetness of memory. In this a woman recalls a childhood Jewish friend: trips to the friend’s home, and the grandmother who floated in the living room. The story may convey/do a lot, but for me what dominated is that hazy memory of childhood acquaintances and the intimacies of entering their homes and how it sometimes differed so much from the culture of my own.
I also related a lot to “Paris Périphérie”. It’s the most plotless story in the collection perhaps, a short meant to capture absurdity. A woman simply tries to find a building in Paris. Being someone who has had to try and navigate French bureaucracy as a foreigner, I couldn’t help but commiserate and laugh.
The stories that continue in Rabbit Island give more of the same surreal literature, yet in thoroughly unique ways. In “Myotragus” an aristocrat on the isle of Majorca who suffers from elephantiasis experiences sightings of the eponymous extinct goat. In “The Top Floor Room” a woman who lives in a hotel as one of the cooks starts to experience the dreams of the guests, a disorienting experience perhaps symbolic of the melting pot European cities. Regardless, it represents another of the highlights in the collection. In “Memorial” a woman becomes friended on Facebook by her deceased mother. This is one example in the collection where Navarro uses modern technology ways that border on the gothic side of Weird.
Rabbit Island concludes with “Gums” and “The Fortune Teller”. The latter concerns a woman who begins receiving texts from a supposed clairvoyant. The woman, and the reader begin to see lines blurred in causation. Can futures be made to happen? Are these texts coming externally, or from somewhere internal to the woman? I am not sure the story is entirely effective, and it may be the hardest to unpack. But, it is certainly an interesting premise/study.
Like the first story “Gums” concerns a couple on vacation, and again a sort of couple/non-couple. In this case, the two share intimacy, but the man (Ismael) is uninterested in marriage. The woman continues with him despite wanting more, and even when his mouth becomes infected by a bit of local shellfish that gets stuck in his gums. In some sections the story reads almost like body horror, but most of it explores the woman’s uncertainty:
“Rather than marine dwellings or pieces of beach-themed jewelry, I’ve always thought of shells as skeletons. The souvenir stores at seafronts, with their tellina and conch shells, seemed more to me like bone traders. When I put one of those miniature crypts to my ear I don’t hear the sound of the sea, but the spirit of the mollusk, its sticky soul slithering over the nacre… I picked up a shell and put it to my nose; at first I could only smell volcanoes, their rocky bodies. Then I perceived the foul smell of Ismael’s mouth, of my non-husband’s gum, but I put it down to my olfactory imagination or tiredness. As the subtle smell became a source of pestilence, it forced me to turn around, thinking that Ismael was behind me. For me, ghosts are never the spirits of strangers. They are the people I love most dearly. I threw the shell far way and on my next outing avoided any communion with the silent earth.” – p. 145
The remaining story from the middle of the collection that I haven’t yet mentioned, “Notes on the Architecture of Hell” may be the most impressive of Rabbit Island. It has a story within a story structure, featuring a male protagonist who relates his own story by also telling that of his older brother, a fellow who worked for NASA but ended up in a mental institution after strange events surrounding his work (perhaps). The story combines the surreal urban landscape features of “Paris Périphérie” with deeper character torment. It delves into questions of inheritance in that European city setting where the very old exists alongside the modern. This story again has Gothic undertones that I feel crop up in some of Navarro’s story without overtly crossing into the genre.
In the end I may not have adored every story in Rabbit Island, but neither did I dislike any. If pressed immediately after reading them I would have likely said that several were unremarkable or that they felt incomplete. I still think some could have been a bit more. But I also came to realize that many of these remain incomplete after reading because the thinking about them is an integral part of the experience and their power.