Hungry for What by María Bastarós review – darkly compelling tales from Spain

<span>Cruel logic … María Bastarós.</span><span>Photograph: PR</span>
Cruel logic … María Bastarós.Photograph: PR

María Bastarós likes to bring her short stories to a moment of crisis then leave them hanging in mid-air: a shotgun-wielding husband confronts his wife and her lover; a father discovers his twin teenage daughters having sex with his boss; an encounter between a girl and a gang of boys teeters on the edge of assault. These are endings that might, in other hands, leave a reader feeling cheated and wanting three more pages, but Bastarós is so good, her stories so darkly compelling, that personal predilections evaporate in the heat of her talent.

Bastarós has published four books in Spain, but this is her first appearance in English (translated by Kevin Gerry Dunn). Set mostly in the lonely, arid landscapes of northern Spain, where the desert “plays games that no one understands”, and swallows the careless whole, the presiding mood of these tales is dread. Bastarós’s characters – jilted lovers, seekers of revenge, daughters plotting against mothers, disaffected office workers – are all waiting for the axe to descend. Almost invariably, it does. It is a moral universe, I suppose, but one that operates according to an ominously occluded – or perhaps just cruel – logic.

Bastarós has us off balance from the start. The opening story, A Grown-up Dinner, describes a young girl trying to recreate one of the romantic meals her mother and now dead father used to enjoy. Instead of foie gras she uses wedges of Laughing Cow cheese sprinkled with chocolate powder. For baby eels, Chipsticks topped with raw garlic. It seems naively charming, but the complexity of the gesture is revealed when the mother comes home with her boyfriend, a psychotherapist, who has little difficulty decoding the aggression of the girl’s action.

Never knowing where things might go next becomes part of the pleasure of the book

She succeeds in expelling him from the house but has scant opportunity to enjoy her victory. The next morning her mother takes her out, driving down highways “longer and emptier than the girl could have imagined”. They drive not only into the desert but seemingly beyond the borders of reality, the story ending in an unexpectedly ritualistic, adversarial scene between mother and daughter.

From this point, never knowing where things might go next becomes part of the pleasure of the book. Some of these stories, like That Time With the Shotgun, read as though the boozy, violent and desperate characters from a Fernanda Melchor novel have relocated to Spain. Bastarós’s writing has a similar muscularity, and an ability to present domestic squalor that makes it, like the stench of the van that delivers the protagonist to her job at a slaughterhouse, “take solid form and slide into her throat like a wad of gum, a tangible thing she could chew and spit in someone’s face”.

The more time I spent in Bastarós’s world – and it is a world, geographically demarcated and with characters migrating from one story to another – the more I was reminded of the Argentinian writer Silvina Ocampo, who composed an impressive library of macabre work between the 1930s and 1980s. The malignity Bastarós’s stories exude, as well as their use of child protagonists, perversion of domestic settings, the sensation of sliding between reality and weirder, less explicable spaces, and, relatedly, the unpredictability of where the next sentence will lead, are all traits these writers share.

Near the end of Ocampo’s life, when she was compiling her first collection in English, her translator said Ocampo insisted that they choose “her cruellest stories” – an attitude of which I imagine Bastarós would approve. There is a goading audacity to her writing that some might find offputting, but which impressed me. Those Who Keep the Fire, the final story and one of the collection’s best, describes a gynaecology nurse who falls in love with a baby: “He fell in love the same way people do in the movies: at first sight, and with rapturous passion. The trouble was the abhorrent object of his misplaced affection.”

This unwanted but undeniable coup de foudre drives him from Spain to the Yukon. Here he finds some kind of answer to his problem in nature, which echoes the book’s other standout story, Notre-Dame Gone to Ashes. The spurned woman at its centre leaves her job, spends time in a psychiatric hospital (a passage reminiscent of the asylum-set stories of Anna Kavan), and finds self-knowledge and peace in the wilderness. This being a Bastarós story, though, they aren’t the only things she finds there.

Only two stories – one describing the aftermath of a rape and murder, the other a Christmas Eve revelation of despair – fall short of gripping us by the throat. But they do little to diminish the impact of this riveting collection. In Spanish the book’s title is No Era Esto a lo Que Veníamos: This Was Not What We Came For. It wasn’t, but we should be glad it’s what we got.

• Hungry for What by María Bastarós, translated by Kevin Gerry Dunn, is published by Daunt (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.