Epeolatry Book Review: Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird by Agustina Bazterrica
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Title: Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird: Stories
Author: Agustina Bazterrica
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Release date: 4th May, 2023
Synopsis: A collection of nineteen dark, wildly imaginative short stories from the author of the award-winning TikTok sensation Tender Is the Flesh.
From celebrated author Agustina Bazterrica, this collection of nineteen brutal, darkly funny short stories takes into our deepest fears and through our most disturbing fantasies. Through stories about violence, alienation, and dystopia, Bazterrica’s vision of the human experience emerges in complex, unexpected ways—often unsettling, sometimes thrilling, and always profound. In “Roberto,” a girl claims to have a rabbit between her legs. A woman’s neighbor jumps to his death in “A Light, Swift, and Monstrous Sound,” and in “Candy Pink,” a woman fails to contend with a difficult breakup in five easy steps.
Written in Bazterrica’s signature clever, vivid style, these stories question love, friendship, family relationships, and unspeakable desires.
Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird is an anthology of twenty stories, written by Agustina Bazterrica and translated by Sarah Moses. By comparing most of the stories to “claws”, the title suggests that they are sharp, wild, crooked, violent, and potentially lethal. But the title also positions “claws” and “bird” in opposition to each other, conjuring an image of an intact bird alongside nineteen claws that have been severed from their owners’ bodies. If the title had simply been “20 Claws”, it would have been much easier to picture ten unharmed birds with twenty claws in total, as opposed to twenty claws without their owners. And while the second image is much more gruesome, it also feels subdued. After all, the claws are not alive, unlike the bird that can still continue to inflict harm, especially after what has been done to its kin. Just as the bird’s presence makes the claws more terrifying, the claws’ presence makes the bird more of a threat. Likewise, the stories in this anthology amplify one another’s horror, creating an atmosphere of unwavering unease.
My favourite story is “Roberto”. The first line piques our interest immediately: “I have a bunny between my legs.” The protagonist goes on to explain: “I told my friend Isabel. I said, ‘Isa, the other day a bunny grew between my legs. Do you have one too?’” Besides the originality of the premise, I love how clearly and crisply it is conveyed to the reader. By the second paragraph, we know details like who (girls), where (a school), when (a school day), what (a bunny grows between the legs of the protagonist), why (the protagonist is probably exaggerating, maybe because she wants to prank Isabel), and how (by using her vivid imagination; after all, she is a child). The rest of the story is just two pages long. Within such a short space, Bazterrica introduces a conflict and resolves it in a satisfying way, not only through her deft use of subtext, but also by omitting the uninteresting, and ultimately unnecessary, details, like what happened before and after the protagonist’s day at school. Instead, she focuses solely on the most interesting event, trusting the reader to fill in the gaps. In this way, she not only engages our attention from start to end, she also makes us feel smart for figuring out the story’s context.
Another great story is “The Continuous Equality of the Circumference”. The protagonist, Ada, wants her body to become perfectly spherical, because “the circle is the most perfect of geometrical shapes”. In particular, a circle has no end point, making it eternal. Likewise, Ada reasons, her spherical body will make her immortal. When everyone else dies, “she’ll remain because of her circularity, thanks to which she’ll be inextinguishable.” This conviction leads Ada to cut off her limbs and consume only round foods, which she believes will “affect [her] internal structure”. The absurdity of her actions forms a stark contrast with the systematic thought that underpins them, and Bazterrica sustains this tension throughout the story. Even if I can’t actually imagine anyone following Ada’s example, the compelling way in which she explains her actions gives them a twisted but coherent logic, allowing me to maintain my suspension of disbelief. At no point do I feel disengaged from the story, and I admire Bazterrica’s ability to take a far-fetched idea and make the reader invested in it.
Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird is a thought-provoking anthology that roosts on your mind, forcing you to share its nightmares.
Available from Amazon.