Happy Birthday by Clarice Lispector, 1960
The magic trick:
Generating an intense stress arc throughout the story, using family tension
This story ratchets up the tension to a painful degree. It is literally cringe-worthy reading. And there’s no plot. Really not much happens at all. Family members gather for the matriarch’s 89th birthday party. They mill about, they have dinner, they eat cake, they leave. That’s it. But, I’m telling you, it’s tense. Really, really tense.
Lispector just absolutely nails the awkward family scene. The children don’t know the right thing to say to their mother. The mother is silent, but we get a window into her thoughts briefly and she’s not happy. There are decades of disappointment weighing over this family. The siblings judge each other. The host is worried about appearances. No wonder it’s tense. You don’t need a lot of plot twists to generate suspense. Family dynamics will do the job just fine. And that’s quite a trick on Lispector’s part.
The birthday girl was staring at the large, dry, extinguished cake.
“Cut the cake, Grandma!” said the mother of four, “she should be the one to cut it!” she asserted uncertainly to every- one, in an intimate and scheming manner. And, since they all approved happily and curiously, she suddenly became impetuous: “cut the cake, Grandma!”
And suddenly the old woman grabbed the knife. And without hesitation, as if in hesitating for a moment she might fall over, she cut the first slice with a murderer’s thrust.
“So strong,” the daughter-in-law from Ipanema murmured, and it wasn’t clear whether she was shocked or pleasantly surprised. She was a little horrified.
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