Shruti Swamy’s “A House Is a Body” delivers a collection of short stories that develop a peculiar binary between marriage and death. In patently short, sharp sentences, Swamy tells an array of stories about South Asian women in the first and third person. Stories such as “The Siege,” “A Simple Composition,” “The Laughter Artist” and “Night Garden” — all told in the first person — are among the very best of the collection. Others, such as “Blindness” and “A House Is a Body,” are more conceptually intriguing — dialogue without quotation marks, dreams and metaphors running unchecked — but they lack the witty and grounded personality of the stories written in the first person.
At their core, these are stories about failed marriages. The stories told in the first person offer heroines who have the vibrance, the inertia or, simply put, the character to overcome the chaos and loss endemic to the institution of marriage. The stories told in the third person tend to be engulfed by it.
“A House Is a Body” shows the reader many marriages, but at its core, it is focused on one type of marriage: broken. The first short story presents a marriage that is over before it has barely even begun. The final story in the collection shows a woman so remote from her husband that her dog, Neela, seems to have largely filled the emotional void. In between these two stories, Swamy explores marriage in all of its stages of decay. The marriages, however, much like the husbands, are opaque backgrounds for Swamy’s characters to stand against. Marriage is a source of tension, of decay and collapse, but Swamy does not seem particularly engaged with the cause of this marital tension. As the reader progresses through the collection, they are increasingly primed to expect that marriages will inherently fall apart, as if it is a clause in the novel’s terms and conditions.
“A House Is a Body” is a frank and unbounded metaphor. The titular short story of the collection follows a mother nursing her daughter through a dangerously high fever as the house they live in is surrounded by a wildfire burning out of control. The most interesting aspect of this dynamic is the interiority of the fever and the exteriority of the fire: The body of the girl is burning from the inside out, but the house will burn from the outside in. This is conceptually appealing, but the story itself seems to hinge on yet another failed marriage, which is not a particularly novel development for the penultimate story of the collection. What is perhaps most distinct about this addition to Swamy’s thematic landscape is the mother’s reaction to her dissolving union: The story captures an intense emotional paralysis, an arresting narrative urge to freeze even in the face of smoldering oblivion.
There is an atmosphere, an amorphous personification of death that inhabits Swamy’s stories. Death is there in the garden, in a child’s climbing temperature, in a woman’s laughter. Swamy’s treatment of death is often removed and is considerably more interesting, more leery and unpredictable, than her treatment of marriage. Where the marriages of Swamy’s stories are inanimate and stillborn, death arrives like a suitor — both in terms of plot and language.
Swamy’s greatest skill is her sentence construction, which she deploys to exceptional effect. Phrases such as “Who had death come for, the dog or me?” and “It was the priest who smothered the horse” live on in the reader’s mind long after the stories end. It is this casual treatment, the sharp, simple sentences, that introduces death as a sort of linguistic order against the narrative chaos of marriage.
As a result, “A House Is a Body” becomes increasingly repetitious on the subject of marriage but remarkably original in the face of death. The young married women of Swamy’s stories never seem to make peace with their husbands, but they do make peace with death. Perhaps this is the best possible light in which to see the collection. Swamy has masterful control over sentence structure, but her metaphors could work a bit harder to drive home her themes. The houses and bodies of these stories can and will burn up, but the marriages they hold inside them are ossified — and even fire cannot make them animate or passionate.