Reviews

Confronting Transitions in “A House is a Body”

A review of Shruti Swamy's new book, "A House is a Body."

Transition is often met with uncertainty. Changes in life challenge our perceptions, our emotions, and the way we feel about ourselves. In Shruti Swamy’s debut story collection, A House is a Body, a thread of internal change weaves throughout the twelve stories. Characters accept and face the consequences of unavoidable circumstances in life, and it’s this acceptance that gives these stories their meaning.

The book’s predominant, resurfacing theme is that of motherhood and its complexities. In more than half the stories, pregnancy, babies, and mothering are sensational experiences that ignite an element of desperation. For example, in the opening story, “Blindness,” Sudha, the protagonist, is left by her husband and later finds herself pregnant by another man. Time skips, and she has two children by a second husband who has died, and so she must live with her husband’s unsavory brother while she works as a cleaner. Marriage, and then children suffocate Sudha as she falls into a black hole of depression that does not improve by story’s end. In the title story, which is the strongest of the collection, a young, sick child irritates the protagonist, who brushes off her child’s illness. Throughout the narrative, a fire burns in the hills, and as it reaches the city, the mother bit-by-bit displays maternal instincts that were non-existent at the opening. Swamy is deeply interested in the internal shift when a woman gets pregnant, and then has the child, and then moves into motherhood.

The color blue is popular in A House is a Body. Its use as a theme is up for interpretation, though blue is commonly associated with vast, immeasurable things, such as the sea or the sky, or, as in the case with “Mourners,” death. Blue dots the pages — the towels, bathing suits, blue jeans, and even the air is blue. The mood is, of course, blue, as the story’s characters gather after a death. Perhaps blue is a source of comfort to troubled souls. This theory finds more support through its use in “Earthly Pleasures.” This fabulist story includes the blue-toned Hindu god Krishna, as he exists on earth in human form. The protagonist develops a relationship of sorts with him. Krishna’s gentle, serene personality is reflective of his representation: compassion and love. In “Didi,” a father hoists his daughter Didi up on his shoulders like Krishna, playful and comforting after a scary dream. “I lifted her up. It was like that old myth, Krishna’s father carrying baby Krishna on his shoulders, the water rising to touch the child’s feet.”

The interplay of ideas is what links the collection together. Stories divide between closer narratives that feel like moments, while others work within stretches of time and offer a wide scope. The result of the latter is pointed, matter of fact sentences that can give stories the sense of a fable. Still, Swamy shifts time in unflinching confidence that keeps the narrative’s momentum strong. In “A Simple Composition,” a childhood sibling exchange is punctuated by a mysterious midnight emergency. The story skips to adulthood when the narrator encounters this long-lost adult brother with a secret. The shift is bold, but it works, even if the mystery remains unclear.

The stories that take a closer lens tend to create a more compelling narrative. The concluding story, “Night Garden,” tells of a backyard face-off between a dog and a cobra. It’s short and full of energy. Swamy’s gifts shine here, as the destruction of a marriage is expertly woven into the hours-long confrontation between beast and reptile:

“I have seen a dead snake, split open on the side of the road. Its blood was red, and the meat looked like meat, swarmed with flies. People said it was a bad omen for me, a bride, to see it then. Imagine the wedding of the Orissa bride, who married the cobra that lived near the anthill, and was blessed by the village. People made jokes about the wedding night, but everyone’s marriage is unknowable from the outside. I saw a picture of her in the newspaper, black hair, startled eyes, and I blessed her too—who wouldn’t? This same communion, it must have been, two sets of eyes inextricably locked, for hours. The kumkum smeared in her part like blood. The dog was gaining ground.”

Circumstance occasionally stands as plot, as in “The Wedding Season” in which two women in love attend a family wedding of of one of the women, Tejas, who is Indian. The glorious ceremony is traditional, and Tejas’ love does not fall within those traditional lines, regardless of how open her family may appear. Death is also a recurring theme throughout the book, and the nearly-forbidden grief sex between in-law siblings is a repeated catalyst that carries more narrative weight than perhaps it merits. The concept is a complication that has no consequences since the connection between the lovers is dead.

Swamy isn’t afraid of experimentation. While “Earthly Pleasures” certainly blurs reality with Krishna’s human presence, “The Laughter Artist” is a strange journey about a woman who makes an art of, you guessed it, laughter. There’s also experimentation of prose, in which Swamy asks the reader to do a lot of work to complete the story. While instances like shifts in time and neatly pared-down language work to Swamy’s advantage, at times, the information could be more pertly explained. Grounding would help the clarity of the stories, which stand on their own without the fancy footwork. Still, Swamy’s collection is nervy and engaging while she displays a talent for sparse emotional language that’s a joy to read: “The house is soaked in night: night has contracted like a fist around the house. No matter. They can light every lamp in the house until morning burns.”

FICTION
A House is a Body
By Shruti Swamy
Algonquin Books
Published August 11, 2020

Sara Webster is a freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado. She earned her MFA from NYU, and in her spare time teaches Creative Writing at Colorado Free University. You can find her at www.sarawebster.net, or on Twitter @sarawebbee. She's at work on her first novel.

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