Like Fever Dream (2014), the haunting book that launched Schweblin into the anglophone literary world several years ago, Seven Empty Houses is deeply unsettling and surreal. Nothing frightening actually happens—there are no murders, supernatural guests, or weird noises here. Rather, we get main characters (often women) who can’t trust reality or their own senses, and, since Schweblin puts the reader in their heads, the effect is uncanny. And while the “houses” mentioned in the title are not “empty” by any means, one gets the sense that something important—a key ingredient that anchors one to the everyday world—is missing in each one.
In many of these stories, characters are searching for something, though they aren’t sure they’ll know what it is if they find it. Appropriately, the first words of “None of That,” the first story in Seven Empty Houses, are “We’re lost.” They are spoken by a woman with a compulsion to enter strangers’ homes and rearrange their contents (and sometimes take objects back to her own house). Narrated by this woman’s daughter, the story moves forward despite the major question that hangs over everything: why does this woman search through and rearrange strangers’ houses? Even when her daughter demands to know, the answer never comes. When an owner of one of these houses turns the tables and follows the two women to their home in search of something the older woman may have stolen, the narrator’s dark joy at seeing someone who’s not her mother searching their house is at once creepy and understandable.
Unlike “None of That,” two other stories—“Forty Centimeters Squared” and “Out”—feature wandering women with no discernible purpose. While the unnamed narrator in the former goes out for aspirin for her mother-in-law and winds up sitting on a subway bench, the similarly unnamed narrator in the latter literally walks away from an argument with her husband or boyfriend and ends up wandering around the nighttime streets with a man who fixes fire escapes—and calls himself an “escapist” (a bit on the nose, that). Ultimately, this story and “Forty Centimeters Squared” focus on a human’s inability to communicate with another human. This invisible barrier between people in Schweblin’s work might just be its most terrifying aspect.
Trusting strangers in potentially dangerous situations is also the central theme of “An Unlucky Man,” in which, thanks to a series of bizarre events, a young girl winds up going with an older man she just met to get herself a new pair of underwear. Told from the girl’s point of view, the story has a measured, unemotional quality, as if to underscore the fact that nothing untoward happens in a situation that would likely lead to the man getting arrested (just because the story sounds so unlikely). The trust the girl has for the older man, though, stems from her sense of injustice: her little sister drank bleach on the older girl’s birthday, leading to the whole family running to the hospital; on the way, to get through the traffic, the girls’ father demands the older one’s white underwear to wave out the window. The stranger obtains the girl’s new (and nicer) underwear by stealing it from a store for her.
Family dysfunction is central, too, to “My Parents and My Children” and “It Happens All the Time in This House.” In the former, an estranged couple meet up to bring their kids to spend time with the (male) narrator’s parents, and a strange mix of the bizarre and hilarious slowly unfolds. While the couple bickers, the grandparents (who are already naked and dancing around in the backyard) get their grandchildren to discard their clothes, and then all four disappear. While the estranged couple look everywhere in and outside the house, and then call the police, the four naked family members sneak back into the house and make obscene gestures as the police car pulls away. A child-like, natural joy contrasts harshly here with the complicated relationship of the kids’ parents. It is the tragic, rather than the bizarre, that marks “It Happens All the Time in This House,” in which a broken man goes to his neighbor’s yard each day to pick up the clothes of his dead son (that his wife keeps throwing out their window). When the female narrator and her neighbor sit together in the yard, unable to discuss the problem looming over them, the narrator’s son strides angrily into the middle of everything and simply removes the clothes from the yard himself.
This kind of strained or broken relationship between parents and children is the cornerstone of the longest story of the collection, “Breath from the Depths.” Centrally located in the book (three stories precede it, three follow), “Breath” is focalized through Lola, one of the only named female characters in these stories. Lola, who suffers from a number of physical problems and doesn’t understand why she can’t just die already, spends her days packing up all of her own and her husband’s possessions for the day that she does finally die. A brief reference to their dead son gives meaning to Lola’s husband’s developing friendship with the new neighbor kid, with whom he hangs out in the yard when Lola is supposedly resting in the house. Lola’s suspicions about the boy lead to a tragic end for him, her husband, and ultimately for herself, as we slowly learn that the effects of Lola’s breakdown after her son’s death have only worsened over time: thanks to the new neighbor, whose son befriended Lola’s husband, we learn that Lola loses large gaps of time and suffers hallucinations. Though she literally holds on to a list of how to live out her final days, she can’t hold on to reality long enough to piece her life together.
Taking its place beside Fever Dream, Mouthful of Birds (2009), and Little Eyes (2018), Seven Empty Houses showcases Schweblin’s masterful manipulation of characters and events to reveal the emptiness and lack of connection that haunts human relationships. The artistry of her work and the brilliant translations by Megan McDowell make these books worth reading for anyone who appreciates great surreal literature.