I am cheating a little with this one. It was published as a novella, not a short story, but at 57 pages of well-spaced text, I think it can be squeezed in. And I simply couldn’t write this list without including Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, a singular Brazilian writer, who died this year. I would not have heard of her were it not for Wasafiri Magazine, who invited me to review this fantastic little book in 2014. So I’m going to cheat again by giving you the first and last paragraphs of that review:
Maria Bráulio Munhoz is a widow and an aunt. She lives in a spotless ninth-floor São Paulo apartment where she is waited on by her maid, Maria Preta. Her life is one of order and routine. Every day, she has soup for lunch followed by something sweet. Then she rings a silver bell and her maid appears carrying a finger bowl, ‘the crystal dish with the rose petal floating in the scented water’. Yet beneath the surface of this highly privileged but boring bourgeois existence lies layer upon layer of deception. What makes this intelligent book so riveting and so impressive is that the deception shifts continually, almost imperceptibly, from one character to another, like the tide turning on a beach.
Some reviewers have said that they read Family Heirlooms in a couple of hours. Beautifully translated by Daniel Hahn, it is a smooth and enjoyable read. But it took me several days of reading and re-reading, seeking out the signs in the text that, earlier, had been flown over in such hurried excitement. While the ruby, or fake ruby, works beautifully as a metaphor for the flawed characters and their excruciating relationships with one another, Tavares pushes the parallels much further than a lesser writer would dare. Folding them in on themselves, again and again, she squeezes every last drop of her characters’ hypocrisy, snobbishness and self-delusion onto the page. It’s thrilling and tragic and incredibly more-ish. By the end, the significance of the ruby, like everything else, has shifted. Uncanny absences and moments of silence come out of the shadows, and the book seems to change shape. The reader, to twist Tavares’ own words, has been ‘inoculated with doses of fantasy’.
Published by Frisch & Co, 2016. Originally published in Brazil as Jóias da Família, 1990. Republished by Companhia das Letras, 2007)