Book Review: A House is a Body

A House is a Body
Shruti Swamy

A House is a Body was published on August 11th, 2020. I received an eARC from the publisher, but as always, all thoughts are my own. 

A House is a Body | Shruti Swamy | Book Cover

Content Warning: infidelity, explicit sexual language, statutory rape, allusion to sexual assault of a child, miscarriage, domestic abuse

Synopsis:

In two-time O. Henry-prize winner Swamy’s debut collection, set in both the U.S. and India, dreams collide with reality, modernity with antiquity, and myth with identity. 

Women grapple with desire and ego, as in “Earthly Pleasures,” where Radika, a young painter living alone in San Francisco, begins a secret romance with one of India’s biggest celebrities. Other stories explore domesticity and identity, as in “A Simple Composition,” in which a husband’s professional crisis leads to his wife’s discovery of dark, ecstatic joy. And in the title story, an exhausted mother watches, paralyzed with fear, as a California wildfire approaches her home. With the edge and precision of a knife blade, the stories of A House is a Body reveal the small but intense moments of beauty, pain, and the power that contain the world. 


Review:

If you are familiar with the work of Shruti Swamy, it is likely you have seen her stories in Kenyon Review Online, the Boston Review, the Paris Review, and a number of other publications (listed in the Acknowledgements of A House is a Body). This collection contains those stories and others, which work together to immerse and consume the reader in many delightful, moving, grotesque, thoughtful, and real ways.

  • Blindness

The first story is aptly placed; it contains memory sequences, love anxiety, inner demons, and an overall existentialist theme found in the stories that follow. This introduction to Shruti Swamy’s writing showcases her ability to drift the narrative into memory and back to reality in a clear yet mesmerizing manner.

  • Mourners

This story does not have the same dreamy aura as “Blindness”, but its details are just as thoughtful and affecting. The three main characters are living under one roof and are mourning the same person; their lives sort of unravel as they try to become whole.

I feel it important to note that one of the characters in this story uses the term “Irish twins”, which is a historically derogatory term.

  • My Brother at the Station

The protagonist in this story sees her brother from afar one day, after many years of not speaking. She follows him throughout the day, reflecting on their childhood, her own soon-to-be-born child, and the many wants life leaves you with.

  • The Siege

The most fantasy-like story in this collection, “The Siege” tells of evil acts, rebellions, and two Queens—one in power and one captured as a hostage. The title not only describes the state of the city, but of the symbolic inner state of the narrating Queen.

  • Earthly Pleasures

Krishna is introduced in this story, and is manifested as a celebrity with whom the protagonist starts something of an affair. Art, possession, fantasy are themes of this story, and again that sort of dreamy atmosphere Shruti Swamy writes so well is present throughout the narrative.

  • Wedding Season

Two lovers take a miniature tour of some of India’s cities, and their story culminates at a wedding in which Tejas is met with a barrage of questions about when she herself will get married, as her girlfriend Al sits at the very same table. Even with the sweetness and devotion Tejas and Al have for each other, the whole story feels a little hesitant, as though both women are always anticipating the verbalization of these expectations. Their love story may be one of the most honest across the characters in this collection.

  • The Neighbors

Belonging, willful ignorance, and a slight desperation are presented in this story, where our main character and her daughter meet the new neighbors. It’s quite a straightforward narrative, which actually leaves the reader with a few frustrating questions about the neighbor’s intentions; the reader is left to draw their own conclusions.

  • A Simple Composition

Grooming and statutory rape are unfortunately the setup for the life of the narrator and main character in this story, who searches for identifiable happiness in her adult life. She doesn’t quite live for herself, and there is a sense she feels obligated to be satisfied with her life.

  • The Laughter Artist

This story feels like an interpretation of the expectation of girls and women to be nice and pleasant all the time. Our main character is a certified Laughter Artist, and she talks about how her different laughs are used in different situations, outside of her work on studio audience tracks and movie background noise. She explains how her true laugh is something kept hidden, her true joy kept apart from the situations inflicted by external forces. “The Laughter Artist” is one of the more surreal stories in this collection, but also one of the most impactful.

  • Didi

Parental sadness, grief, and ultimately recovery are the main themes of this story; many things go unsaid but there is a hint that verbalization helps with inner acceptance and moving on.

  • A House Is A Body

The title story is aptly named, as its contents are remembered, revisited, and as memories rush forth around the material possessions and structure. A wildfire makes its way towards the house in the story, and a mother struggles to detach herself and her daughter from all that is contained in the rooms and her memories.

  • Night Garden

An unexpected tale, of a dog and cobra facing off in a garden. The dog’s owner, Viji, stands just inside the house, anticipating the worst while reflecting on the power, grace, and symbolism of each animal. The story ends positively with an air of contemplation.

A House is a Body is a masterful short story collection, because while each story stands on its own, they all feel as though they belong together. The themes of each story and the differing degrees of existential crises each character experiences deepen each scenario, while contributing to the timelessness of each narrative. This collection consumes with commentary on human, individualistic, and even animal nature; it is easy to forget anything else exists beyond these pages, regardless of how many human imperfections, horrors, and instincts are presented.


The winner of two O. Henry Awards, Shruti Swamy’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, the Kenyon Review Online, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. In 2012, she was Vassar College’s 50th W.K. Rose Fellow, and has been awarded residencies at the Millay Colony for the Arts, Blue Mountain Center, and Hedgebrook. She is a Kundiman fiction fellow, a 2017 – 2018 Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, and a recipient of a 2018 grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation.

For more information about Shruti Swamy, visit her website.

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