In the battle between metaphor and simile, metaphor always wins. Though there are certainly good reasons to employ one or the other, depending on the circumstances of your work, the metaphor is the stronger set piece. It brings immediacy, force, and an unexpected delight. In her debut collection, Shruti Swarmy leads with strength. No weak simile business here. A House is a Body: A safe enclosure, a structure both safe-keeping and vulnerable, a thing we inhabit.
A house and a body are also full of openings, apertures that let in light, air, and people: door and window, mouth and nose. And yes, there are apertures in the human body, especially the female body, that play host to others in countless ways: sex, childbirth, assault. This collection of stories is sharp, holding the reader at arms length even as it brings the reader into sudden intimacies. At times, as I read, I had to admit I wasn't so much enjoying the stories as admiring them, but with care not to let them harm me. But there can be no question of the mastery in the making of them. These stories are shot through with sentences like this:
"The screen dropped from my self in those moments without me even realizing it; the terror came later, when I noticed it had fallen, when I was trying to gather myself up in raw handfuls, but I was like sand all over."
The titles of each story are simple, usually a single word or two: Blindness, Mourners, The Siege, Wedding Season. The stories are decidedly not simple. Writing with an acute sense of the physical, Swamy simultaneously lofts her stories into the metaphysical without sacrificing continuity or realism. In "Earthly Pleasures," Krishna himself shrugs in and out of the life of a young painter, struggling to survive the damage she inflicts on herself. And in "My Brother at the Station," the ghosts that he sees are both real and related to the ways he exists both within and outside the physical world.
Though the stories are not linked, there is a resonance throughout, as certain images introduced in one story will reappear in another: blue skin, open mouths, river water. In several of the stories, a character is seeing or being seen through a window, like in "The Laughter Artist" when the narrator looks out the window to see a woman walking quickly away from a violent man.
"The thing to do when you live here though, is to stand at the window and watch with the phone in your hand. Across the way you can see the neighbors in the window doing the same thing. We stand all in our windows like a hall of gods watching, and I am the only one who appears mirthful, I am the only one to laugh."
The stories are grounded in their places just as the women are grounded in the physicality of their bodies. They are open to desire, their own and that of the world; they drink and smoke and marry; they are mouths and lips and lungs and stomachs. Each story is compelling, tracking a grieving trio in “Mourners” or the tension between two suburban mothers, each testing the safety of the other in “The Neighbors.” The stories stack, gathering momentum as they progress, hitting their peak in the penultimate story, “A House is a Body,” where a young mother must face simultaneous terrors: abandonment, illness, and the spreading heat of a wildfire outside her door. Swamy navigates these anxious moments with a deft hand and proves herself a thoughtful observer of humanity well worth our attention.
In an essay to accompany her collection, Swamy writes,
"There are books now I come home to, books that speak to that deep place in me, books in which the rhythm of the language sounds exquisitely familiar, if more beautifully articulated than I could ever manage. For most of my life I have lived there, in these books, and I have written stories too, to make small rooms for myself to be alive in."
Readers everywhere relate to this feeling and to the one expressed by the titular character in the story "Didi" who asks her father,
"Do you ever feel sad when you go to the library?"
"Yeah," she said. "I feel like there are just so many books there and I will never be able to read them all."
And again, the shock of recognition is there. I have felt this, I do feel this. I have expressed this exact thing to friends who do not understand, who humor me and my bittersweet joy-pain in libraries and bookstores. Even knowing I will never be able to read them all, I remain thankful for the ways each book brings me something unique. And I'm thankful A House is a Body is one I have read.
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