Contemporary Literature · Short Stories

A House Is a Body

I grabbed this one a few months ago from an online library book sale. I can’t say for sure what made me choose it, but I think maybe the title just caught my attention? Anyways, it seems like I am on a roll with randomly picking up backlist titles from authors with new books coming out, because in addition to this one (Swamy’s novel The Archer was just published), I also recently read Sindu’s Marriage of a Thousand Lies right after her most recent book was published. Neither was on purpose – just a strange coincidence!

A House Is a Body by Shruti Swamy

As you may remember, though it has been awhile since I have read a short story collection, I usually organize reviews of them by giving a little blurb/reaction to each individual story, then finish with some overall thoughts at the end. So, let’s jump into that:

Blindness – This opening story has a real dreamlike and distant quality to the writing and the way the narrative jumps. It’s like trying to reach out for something that is there, but distorted and just beyond your grasp. A really unique sort of compilation of pieces of dreams and imagined realities of lives that were or are or could be for the baby the narrator’s body just recognized within. A note: inclusion of a number of oblique, but certain, references to different sexual coercion/assault/manipulations.

Mourners – A lovely (though sad) portrayal of the trancelike state that being enmeshed in grief puts one into, and the way it expands to a group, when facing it together (but still in an isolated way).

My Brother at the Station – I can’t really explain what it’s about, or what happens, in this story. There’s a brother who sees spirits/knows things and we see how his knowing creates distance, maybe envy, between him and his sister…kinda. But the sense of wanting and fear within this story cuts deeply, even if the “plot” itself is vague.

The Siege – This one was definitely my favorite story. A recognizable tale of the grief and powerlessness of the women behind “leading” men, women with the dubious gift of knowing what more grief is to come and being unable to prevent it. I do wish this one was longer though. I would read a full book based on these two primary female characters against the backdrop of an ancient war/siege. “When he was little, and asked me how he was born, I told him her was once a small rabbit, and I carried him around in the fold of my sari. Before a rabbit? A mouse. Before a mouse? A little moth that used to perch on my shoulder. Before a moth? A whisper.” / “I had thought that grief would make me brave against the rest of my fears: if the worst had come, there was nothing left to dread.”

Earthly Pleasures – There was something more intimate about this story, though that dreamy feeling was still there in the distant way the narrator moves through her interactions/days. The look at addiction here, in the way Swamy illustrates the promised state but always just out of reach perfect line of alcohol intake, the way searching for it creates a greater and greater remove from real life, the way our narrator ends up existing in the world and outside of it, is breathtaking. “The tricky thing about silence is its weight, the heaviness it gives a particular word or name that sits unspoken on your tongue. That word or name may grow over time, filling your mouth, your lungs, your belly, with the evil and beauty of its absence.”

Wedding Season – What caught me here was all the ways you can recognize a body and it still be completely foreign to you, particularly a body so objectively different from your own, despite how familiar you are with it. It’s such an abstract concept brought to language so deftly. There’s a profound sort of sadness, but also a deep sweetness, in the limitations on how one can celebrate queer love but at least be able to have that love. Quietly powerful and one of my favorites of the collection.  “Eyes filled with each other. Love, perhaps, not a feeling, but a way of looking. Flooding open.”

The Neighbors – Ooof, it was a slow build to get to it, but what an affecting way to convey the secret and solitary lives of domestic abuse, the quiet scrabbling for hope or denial, in different ways. Phew. 

A Simple Composition – There was a real underlying menace in this story, imagined and mental and obsessive, that cast a pall of discomfort/quiet agony over the story, which otherwise was just…a “normal” story of a couple leaving their homeland to start a new life elsewhere, following opportunity and education. It also aligned with the feelings of distance, this time cultural/lingual, that are threaded throughout this collection. “I feared I was utterly ordinary.” / “Real snow was so small, and came all at once, but gently, and fell in a way I had never seen anything fall before, with none of the weight and force of rain, with profound and unhurried silence.” (Something about this description of snow just, spoke deeply to me, in a very unexpected way.)

The Laughter Artist – This one hurt. The recasting of a laugh, something supposedly light and happy, into the many ways it can be dark and painful and mean…I loved that. The artistic style of writing wasn’t something I’d want a full novel of, but it was perfect in this short story length. And while I’m not totally sure of the message/goal of the story, I’m left with a strong feeling of angry dissatisfaction. That deep but unclearly defined reactionary vibe is a hallmark of the writing in this collection and, from that perspective, this is one of the strongest stories, I thought.

Didi – So short, but there was a unique innocence in this one, in all the characters, even the parents, despite the real life tragedy they lived through. And then the magic/blessing of coming out on the other side that almost felt unreal, like a dream, was spot on for the collection.

A House Is a Body – This titular story is strong. A building fever with a building wildfire, the parallels of the house and the body, was gorgeous and terrifying in juxtaposition. Overall, touching and emotionally wrecking, though it’s hard to pinpoint how or why. Absolutely one of the best stories in the collection.

Night Garden –  This was a wonderful dreamy, trance-like story to end with, a sort of sitting vigil for the rest of the characters and stories in the collection, as we say goodbye as a reader. It was a stand-off of humanity and animal both, but with animals as central and humans taking a backseat/observational position in an upheaval of our normal understanding of hierarchy, which was original and interesting. “What you have left is what you have.”

I mentioned this a few times during my mini-reactions to each story, but really the overarching connective thread amongst these stories is their ethereal and ephemeral vibe. At the beginning, through at least the first half to two thirds of the collection, I felt like that was really it, that there wasn’t really any other connection in these stories, in setting or character-type or time period or anything really, and I wasn’t really sure how I felt about that purposeful disjointedness. But as I was reaching the end, there were a few things that I noticed seemed to be consistently present, in some way. As I mentioned, the vibe, and the feelings that I was left with as a reader, were a force. And with a subtle focus on the five senses, with different stories highlighting different ones, physical reactions/remembrances were more common for me than when I normally read. There was a concentration on the quotidian, taking the normal and making it less tangible/recognizable, more dream-like. The stories were low on plot, but had heavy nuance in relationships, with lots of internal complications and slow splittings/unknowings of couples, with a focus on the perspective of the women within them. Perhaps because of this style, I am already forgetting many of the details of the stories themselves, even having just finished reading last night, but I have distinct sensory memories of how the stories made me feel.  

Overall, I’m split in my reactions to this collection. I am impressed with the writing, to the extent that it carried so much hazy, yet visceral, emotion. I don’t even understand how that combination is possible – fascinating. And yet, few of the individual stories made an impression on me as a reader. So by the time I finished, the aura I was left with, though potent, wasn’t quite enough to make up for that. In the end, I just wasn’t able to like this collection as much as I wanted to, or wished I could have. There were some really wonderful stories though, and if you have been interested in picking this one up, I still think it would be worth your time to give it a try for yourself. 

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