Short Story Review – Nadia Villafuerte – Happy Box (trans. Pennell Somsen)

She wanted to know something beyond the end of her nose…

Wanderlust.  It doesn’t strike everyone, but when it does, and when that desire isn’t satisfied, unhappiness reigns.  It’s impossible to be truly satisfied with staying at home when your feet are itching to move.

For Key, wandering from town to town, drinking Budweiser and having fun, dancing and staying up late – that was the dream.  She was living it.  She had made it.  For now, at least, her dreams were in the process of being lived and experienced.

Or, rather, then.

Life has changed.  A mistake – such a common, tiny, little, simple, easy mistake.  So many people make it.  She wasn’t supposed to be like ‘so many people’, but here she is: married to a husband she dislikes, raising a child she didn’t want.

Prior to the mistake we see its catalyst, which reads very much as rape and is one of the most powerful paragraphs in the story.  It is a paragraph of commingled relief that she isn’t going to be murdered, horror about what is occurring, and the realisation that life now was going to be very different from what it had been. And here it is in full:

The line of trucks. The way he gouged her. The trailer full of bags of sugar. Just darkness and sugar when they closed the doors. She was almost asphyxiated. She was going to die and become one more fatality in the news. Three illegals died. Her death would be sweet and hot. The sweet world penetrated her pores, overpowering her. Until the doors opened and she saw shadows again. Then, after taking her money, before letting her go, the driver. There was no half moon. No barking of dogs. No crickets. Just the vast silence, of the desert, of the lonely road. The driver stunk of booze. She wanted to get away. He knocked her down with one slap. Then she opened her eyes. She saw the clean blue of the night. Whoever said that in situations like that the best thing to do is to go limp and give in can eat shit and die. Above her leg the hot air of the engine and a thick trickle. The man said she should be grateful that he had charged her very little for crossing more than half the country. If she made it to the other side she would wash herself for an entire day. If she managed to get there she would never have anything to do with a Mexican.

The short sentences grind us down.  They wear us out.  It’s exhausting to read, deliberately so, paced to reverberate in our minds.  This experience rocks her, changes the way she feels.  Of course it does.

The narrative speeds up.  Soon she is married and the unwanted mistake-child arrives.  She never wanted the husband, but her world had been shattered by the above experience and she basically fell into it.  She met him after a ten hour shift and was already drunk when they started talking.  Far too drunk, and very quickly pregnancy appears and marriage becomes a foregone conclusion.

The way the story is written alters between referring to Key as ‘she’ and ‘her’, and then ‘Key’.  This is all expected (how else would a story refer to a named female character?) but the way it is handled is odd, off-kilter.  The choices are unsettling.  When we expect to read ‘she’ we instead read ‘Key’, and the other way is true, too.  The sentences are just slightly wrong, and they act to distance the reader and the character from what is happening.  Everything occurs as though perceived through thick panes of glass, in rooms stuffed with soundproofed insulation.  Nothing is close enough to touch.

Key clearly detests her current life.  She fails to recognise that her friends would not, years later, still be wandering Latin America drinking and screwing and having adventures.  Or, sure, they might, but those kinds of activities are less appealing when you are older than when you are young.  For Key, though, it was all ripped from her before she was ready to voluntarily give it up, which has created deep resentment in her, a dark well of feeling which expresses itself as disdain and hatred towards her husband and child, who deserve none of it.

The child in particular.  Suny.  Towards the end of the story Key is so caught up in her resentments that she accidentally (well…) over-medicates her daughter and mixes up ingredients.  At first, it seems as though the girl might die, but it soon becomes clear that rather than that, she will in fact simply be made horribly ill.  In some way this is worse, because Key doesn’t much care, and considers mostly that the stained toilet is yet another thing to be cleaned, and yet another reason to dislike Mexicans.  That it is stained because her daughter is extremely unwell is only distantly recognised.

This is a strong piece, written in an extremely effective style which manages to convey quite a lot in a small amount of text.  The sense of place within the story is strong, and as much as Key is kept separate from us via the odd sentence structure and word choice, we really develop a clear understanding of the kind of person she is, and how a woman such as her might easily exist within the world.  How many such depressives are there?  How many men and women who see in their lives only opportunities missed and lives not lived?  Too many, I’m sorry to say, and Key is hardly unique or special at all in this respect, as much as one day she wanted to be different.

Happy Box is a short story by Mexican writer Nadia Villafuerte, and was translated by Pennell Somsen.  You can read the story online at Latin American Literature Today.

Author Nadia Villafuerte
Title Happy Box
Translator Pennell Somsen
Nationality Mexican
Publisher Latin American Literature Today

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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