The unnamed narrator of “Paris Périphérie,” a wisp of a story in Elvira Navarro’s new collection of short fiction, Rabbit Island, has an innate sense of direction. Even in an unfamiliar neighborhood in the bustling capital city of a foreign country, a hunch usually points her in the desired direction. As we meet her, she’s deeply conflicted about an important relationship, and long walks seem to clarify her thoughts. One day, while searching for a government office to re-up her short-term residency permit in Paris, she stops in front of a brick building. The façade is covered with mildew. Nearby, there’s a neglected garden. Storm clouds gather above distant skyscrapers. All at once, she’s gripped by a feeling of pronounced isolation—but she doesn’t mind a bit. If this is a “sense of unease,” one whose origins elude her, it’s oddly, inexplicably “pleasurable.”
Compared to some of this book’s wonderfully strange stories, “Paris Périphérie” is a minor mood piece, limited to a handful of thoughts going through the protagonist’s head as she makes for the city’s outskirts. But much of what makes this Spanish writer so interesting is present in its six pages. Impeccably translated by Christina MacSweeney, the stories in Rabbit Island take place in peripheral locales, settings that amplify Navarro’s talent for capturing the emotions that arise when her characters, who often go unnamed, feel lost. She has palpable empathy for people who are estranged from family members, romantic partners, and society itself. And she has an infectious appreciation for the ways in which such circumstances can be at once distressing and exhilarating. With a flair for the uncanny, Navarro can be as entertaining as she is perceptive.
The evocatively titled “Notes on the Architecture of Hell” is this collection’s clear standout. Featuring another main character whose name we never learn, the story, which takes place in Madrid’s cemeteries, hospitals, and sites of worship, charts the long-running travails of two brothers. Our protagonist vividly “remembers the day he saw Older Brother lose his mind,” Navarro writes. It was “a fall afternoon, a pale brown church on the corner, the leaves of the plane trees on the sidewalks. Older Brother climbing a streetlight, chanting a passage from the Apocalypse at the top of his lungs.” He’d hacked off his hair, and his bloody scalp was “glistening like a fresh flower.” The protagonist, too, struggles with his mental health, and after a stay in a psychiatric clinic and subsequent years of suffering, he begins furtively tailing his sibling.
Older Brother, we learn, was a respected NASA official who was forbidden from discussing the classified particulars of his work. He vanished around the time of a sensational UFO sighting, and after his unexplained reappearance, was hospitalized and given too many antipsychotic medications. The protagonist aches when he recalls his once-vibrant brother’s “intellectual and emotional paralysis, that stupefied-lump-of-flesh state” to which he had been reduced. Years later, as the story returns to the present day, Older Brother’s doctors forge a more humane pharmaceutical regimen, imbuing him with renewed friskiness. He begins sneaking out of the clinic after dark, alighting one night on a seminary, another on a church. Secretly following Older Brother as he enters the latter building, the protagonist “hear(s) a cry of relief. It wasn’t the sound of a man or a woman, but wasn’t a child either.” This happens with increasing regularity, leaving the protagonist to wonder if Older Brother has found a calling as an iconoclastic clergyman or “a crazy exorcist.” An irresistible blend of eerie intimations and real-world pathos, this is a gripping, powerful portrait of two suffering souls.
“The Top Floor Room” is another memorable story in which a nameless character faces a predicament that arises in the small hours of the morning. Navarro’s protagonist is on the go in this tale too, but most of her journeys take place in her mind—or perhaps in the minds of others. A kitchen staffer at a hotel where she also lives, the young woman goes to bed one night and “dream(s) of gales and tinny voices shouting.” She thinks she hears a city soundscape, and her perspective soon merges with that of a fellow employee who walks nude through the hotel. “When she woke,” Navarro writes, “she was certain she’d dreamed someone else’s dream.” More dreams of this kind follow. She theorizes that her residency in the hotel has caused her consciousness to subsume the inner lives of others who spend time there. She acknowledges that this is a daffy notion, but her mounting agitation inspires a fateful plan to extinguish her troubling dreams. A compact page-turner about the great mysteries of the mind, this story works as both a character study and a low-key thriller, one with a subtle yet heartbreaking final act.
In two other stories—not her best, yet plenty unnerving—Navarro contends with the ways in which our smartphones and apps can be wielded as alienating weapons. In “The Fortune-Teller,” a woman (again unnamed) is deeply unsettled by text messages sent by a purported clairvoyant. The texts, which seem to allude to painful episodes from the woman’s past, “manifested their own shadow . . . like the photograph of a highway on the outskirts of the city, at night, in a storm. Her childhood fears were there.” “Memorial” is about a woman who discovers that someone impersonating her late mother has created a Facebook page in the dead woman’s name. When the imposter proves to have knowledge of events that only a family member would possess, the woman begins a disturbing virtual correspondence. It’s a creepy tale that presents readers with yet another reason to temper their social media use.
If some of Navarro’s characters are terrorized via twenty-first century technology, others take up residence in places untouched by the internet. In the title story, a restless art-school teacher builds a canoe and paddles into the Guadalquivir, one of Spain’s longest rivers. He starts by exploring a group of islands. Before long, he’s decided to forsake his comfortable home and live on an uninhabited spit of earth. Why reinvent himself as a solitary isle dweller? Maybe he’s just sick of city life. But there are signs that something more worrisome is afoot.
He shouts at birds until he’s hoarse. He introduces rabbits to the island, and they reproduce at an alarming rate; some begin to eat their young, which he takes as a sign. Maybe he’s “inaugurating a new world. All this was happening in silence because there was still no language for a reality that was just taking its first steps.” Navarro depicts her protagonist’s fragile emotions with subtlety and sensitivity. Writing in close third person, she channels his thoughts about his changing appearance. He wonders if “his rapidly graying hair would achieve the amazing whiteness of those now sacred animals.” He is a troubled person, but considering the plights that befall the characters in some of this intelligent book’s other stories, you can understand his inclination to distance himself from the modern world. Estrangement, this collection’s primary theme, can be terrifying, maddening, empowering—often all at once. A complex state of mind, it can be difficult to describe or understand, but Navarro writes about it with commendable insight and compassion.