‘The outsiders of the greenhouse’ [book review]

A review of Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine

‘The skin of an eyelid is unexpectedly delicate,’ explains the narrator of‘Ptosis’, the opening story in Guadalupe Nettel’s fascinating collection, Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories. The Mexican author’s third title to appear in English, here in translation by Suzanne Jill Levine, Bezoar is a short volume imbued with that same delicacy – each story is akin to the blink of an eyelid, both revealing and concealing at the same time. Nettel’s language is precise yet reserved, her first-person narrators giving away only as much as they need to, and while themes do run through the collection, each story inhabits a world of its own. Fragments of unknowable lives that leave the reader more than a little uneasy, Bezoar makes a light yet lasting impression.

Bezoar Guadalupe Nettel

A bezoar, we will find out in the story of the same name, is ‘a stone or ball of hair with healing powers . . . the remedy for all poisons and also the stone of perfect calm’. Though its powerful elements belong only to legend, a bezoar is a very real thing – found in the stomachs of humans and some animals and, metaphorically, inside each of these stories. While each tale begins simply enough, the worlds our narrators move through seeming familiar and settled, at the heart of each one is a clump of something we’d probably rather not look at – the recognisable turned unfamiliar through the simple act of digestion. To read these stories is to feed ourselves on uneasiness, to succumb to the mounting suspicion that the world we thought we knew is slightly off-kilter.

Crossing the planet from Paris to Tokyo to South America, Nettel’s stories offer a range of settings and equally disparate narrators. In ‘Ptosis’ we encounter the son of a Parisian photographer who specialises in photographing human eyelids before and after surgery; in ‘Through Shades’, an unnamed woman sits in a darkened room to spy on her male neighbour and his date in a flat across the street. ‘Bezoar’ is presented as the diary of a young woman undergoing psychiatric treatment; jumping back and forth between her current experiences in hospital and the drug abuse and stormy relationship that helped put her there, she addresses her notes to a doctor who may or may not have her best interests at heart. As different as they all are, these narrators have various traits in common: a reluctance to disclose the whole truth, an evasiveness about their actions, a certain kind of wiliness that results in precise details overlapping with vague assertions. A slight sense of frustration arises from reading these stories – they are, we feel, most definitely narratives, in which the person doing the telling is deliberately deciding to keep things for themselves. This is, of course, a fundamental characteristic of fiction, but it’s rare for it to come to the fore in such a perceptible manner.

Adding to this sense of unease – it can be hard, as readers, to accept that we don’t know what’s going on – are the absurd elements of the stories, in which scenes that could be out of a fairy tale (an original, dark version) suddenly seem to blend with real life. In ‘Bonsai’, perhaps my favourite of the collection, a Japanese man makes the acquaintance of a gardener in a local park and becomes obsessed with the idea that humans have plant equivalents – he is a cactus, one of ‘the outsiders of the greenhouse’, while he sees his wife as a persistent climbing vine. This small, seemingly innocent notion soon grows into an obsession that will have consequences for his marriage – or, looked at another way, pose a solution to a previously unnoticed issue. Memorable for its coolly detached tone as well as for the ideas it encompasses, ‘Bonsai’ is characteristic of Nettel’s incisive observations on human fears and shortcomings.

Both the distinct sense of being an outsider and the obsession that slowly takes hold in ‘Bonsai’ can be traced throughout the other stories in Bezoar, and it is perhaps this more than anything that gives rise to that collective descriptor: ‘unsettling’. Each narrator, as well as somehow wanting to be an outcast, setting themselves deliberately apart from the rest, is obsessed with one particular topic – plants, the man across the street, the idea of ‘True Solitude’, hair, eyelids – but perhaps none more so than the male narrator of ‘Petals’, who becomes fanatical about a woman he has never seen based entirely on her scent. Spending his time in female bathrooms, where he closely examines the toilet bowls for traces of individual women, he begins pursuing ‘La Flor’ across the night-time city in a story that is both frightening and absurd. The single-mindedness of his quest and the meticulousness with which he goes about his grotesque activity is at once captivating and repellent, the kind of story that leaves its reader shuddering. Here too, Nettel displays her knack for the uncanny and her mesmerising literary craft: her prose is at all times sensuous and flowing, imbued with a lyricism that frames each story beautifully.

Translator Suzanne Jill Levine has captured the ambience of Nettel’s writing perfectly, turning the original Spanish into an English that is luminous and sharp. There is a rhythm to each story, a pacing that reflects both setting and narrator, while an overarching fluidity binds them all together. Even as I found myself disconcerted by some of the content, there was never a moment I wanted to stop.

Coming in at under a hundred pages, Bezoar is a rather fleeting experience, but one that will linger in the mind long after the book is closed. Guadalupe Nettel, much celebrated in the Spanish-speaking world, proves herself to be a masterful wordsmith and keen observer, and a writer possessed of a rare skill: the ability to reach the bezoar that hides at the centre of all things.

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