Review by by Erinna Mettler
‘There’s so much more to a book than just the reading.’
Janet H Swinney’s debut collection The Map of Bihar could have been written with Maurice Sendak’s famous quote in mind. It is definitely a book is best experienced when the reader participates wholeheartedly, piecing together the information given by Swinney to create their own trajectories for her characters post narrative. It gives us the type of reader/writer relationship that relies on the reader to decipher what they have read to get the most out of the book. You might look up words, places, historical context in order to appreciate fully the story you are being told but it will be worth the effort.
Short stories lend themselves particularly well to this style of reading possibly because the shorter word counts mean that short fiction writers have to leave more out than they put in. Economy and suggestion as essential to a good short story, actions and emotions are hinted at rather than fully revealed.
The Map of Bihar is no exception; these stories pull the reader in, walk alongside for a while like a stranger on a deserted beach then leave behind a myriad of questions. The opening line of the first story (Private Passions) reads,
It was spring, but the sky was an undifferentiated grey and the buds on the trees in the park clutched themselves close.
Consider this sentence by the information it imparts, the personification of the buds, the closed off tightness that then goes on to mirror the first narrator, Archie McStriven, and so many of the characters that appear throughout the collection. People keep themselves to themselves in The Map of Bihar and it is not always for the best. Archie appears, furtive and literally spitting at the darkie next door. Everything about him is telling us to keep away. It transpires that the story is set in 1980s Scotland but we could just as easily have landed like that globule of sputum into our current Brexitland and the legitimisation of casual racism it has dredged up. Archie has a lot of time for the Poles (i.e. White foreigners), they sell things he recognises and helped out in the war.
Darkies on the other hand, you never knew what their game was. And as for their personal habits, you didn’t know the first thing. You didn’t want to know.
This not knowing is the downfall of many of the characters in Private Passions. The inability to connect with neighbours results in more than one tragedy in the space of a few pages. Communities are separate, enclosed, and yet people live in close proximity to each other. There is a sense of detachment and extreme loneliness, despite the hustle and bustle around, that continues throughout the book. McStriven is virtually frozen – he can’t tell if he is inside or outside and is stuck firmly in the past. No one in this story can communicate (not even married couples) everyone is at war and the short sharp scenes resemble military movements, strategic and full of detail – a personal favourite being the gruesome information that the shop keepers have hidden their dead baby in the freezer ‘under the Strawberry Mivis and frozen sprouts.’
Events conspire to create an outcome which we can only guess at as the action ends with the beginning of the next act. What will happen next and how everyone will feel about it are left up to the reader.
Swinney’s protagonists are varied and usually under-represented in literature. As well as encompassing different races and classes she also gives voice to those with disabilities and afflictions. It is rare to find such honest representation. Her pages are marked with wheelchair tracks and pensioners’ slippers, the elderly, disabled and mentally challenged vie for space. In Is it Sunday Yet? Geoffrey and Barbara go out for a dinner-theatre trip, the difficulties of which are not held back,
‘You could, as they claimed, get in through the folding front door, but then the tables were organised in such a way that you couldn’t get the wheelchair through. People halfway through their linguini and cannelloni had to be disturbed, their bags and parcels moved. The looks they got where less than friendly.’
In publishing there is a tendency to temper disability, to compartmentalise it into manageable optimism that won’t scare the consumer too much. Disabled protagonists are often confined to life affirming memoir, fictional representations are few and far between and fictional representations in which the protagonist is angry, even fewer, but having a carer so despairing that they are disturbed with one knee up on the windowsill of a restaurant toilet by way of escape is not something you read everyday. Dependents and their carers argue like everybody else but no-one ever writes about it realistically. Was she really going to leave him there, helpless and unable to navigate the way to the folding front door? And we’re off again creating scenarios outside of the text, gentled egged on by the writer.
Degsie bears a resemblance to Paul Auster’s canine narrative Timbuktu but is told through the eyes of the titular feline. It follows the same logic of witnessing the human through the eyes of an animal (see also Paul Calico’s Jennie). The distancing from human to animal starkly illuminates the preposterousness of the foibles of daily life. Degsie is working his way through his nine lives, living some of them simultaneously, pampered barbershop mascot, child’s best friend, blind lady’s companion. The cat is the perfect example of how our innate sentimentality works, given inappropriate names and non-existent characteristics by his ‘owners’. Currently called Samson by the elderly Mrs Blake, he is nothing like the idealised version she has of him. Instead he is brutal and foul mouthed – an animal. He knows that ‘a cup of tea’ means warmed milk and Maltesers for him. He is a masterclass in sociopathy, playing up to other people’s versions of himself to get what he needs. There are many interpretations to be had here, don’t be taken in by appearances being one, as ever it’s up to us what we take home from Degsie’s engaging and amusing tale.
School days are returned to often and are again shaved of the sentimentality of nostalgia. The best days of our lives are rife with bullies and shame. Sunil, the fat Asian kid, is harassed by gangs and adults alike.
In the morning it was double French which was only comme si comme ca, followed in the afternoon by PE where ritual humiliation was compulsory.
My favourite story is probably A Tadge To The Left. Most of Swinney’s themes come together in a story which is almost structurally perfect. Another school setting, the classroom is expertly rendered, a nightmarish limbo of gymnasium, science labs, and ineffective supply teachers. A boredom induced compass etching takes weeks of sly, methodical planning to complete, only to be dismissed with an indolent, ‘You’re in the wrong class. You should be doing art,’ from a disinterested stand in teacher. The good old days are once again presented not for how good they were but as a time not to be revered. Margaret looks back on her school days from the marital bed, intercut with her husband returning from a late shift at the factory. Her abuse at the hands of her biology teacher is delicately handled; more of the story is left out than in (though it isn’t inexplicit). We are presented here not only with a past that is far from idealized but also with the shockwaves of that past, the tendrils of a society that knew and did nothing stretch out across time to shape the current narrative.
The characters in The Map of Bihar are geometrically connected, placed on intersecting lines they shift and shape each-others’ lives without realising the enormity of their actions. The miniscule movement of one stops the forward motion of another. Few of us think of the butterfly effect of our actions on a daily basis, for short fiction writers it is something of a pre-occupation, perhaps it is to do with the required economy of the craft in short word counts, everything has to mean something either for the narrative of a single story or for the collection as a whole. Self-sufficiency is key to survival, the ability to take whatever life throws at us on the chin. Many of Swinney’s characters are terribly lonely, either by fate or design, sometimes even in a room full of people. How people deal with that loneliness is the make or break factor. Sometimes this philosophy is presented to us more by the bit players, for example in the story Drishti, this man appears only in this moment and yet tells us so much about many of the characters in the book.
He watches a man in checked pants playing Frisbee by himself. Is that really possible? He looks around for a dog who might be a sparring partner. None to be seen. The man flicks his wrist and throws the plastic dish high into the air so that it circumscribes a parabolic arc, turning back upon itself some distance away. The man then jogs towards it at a steady none too athletic pace and catches it as it nears the ground.
This little scene seems to me the perfect analogy for the short fiction writer, we are both observer and Frisbee player, taking on the role of descriptor and creator at the same time. Swinney expects no less of her readers.
In her biographical information we are told that Swinney is from the North of England but has lived in Scotland and London and travelled extensively in Asia. She describes each new setting with cinematic gusto. The stories set in India are told with the relish of an outsider’s eye and the ability to seek out the tiny customs and details that go unnoticed by those who are used to them. As a result, readers with insider knowledge will re-experience India with new insight and those of us who have never visited can take advantage of the virtual reality descriptions to place ourselves firmly on location. Setting is seamlessly interwoven with action, never more so than in the titular story, here grocery store, barber, butcher and doctor’s surgery are all described in a way which progresses the story; conversations are amplified by the locations they are held in. The rain falling on a town’s streets after a drought for example;
Women were drawn whooping to their windows. Shutters were thrown back. Little boys ran out onto the street and tore about like aeroplanes in a dog fight.
The coming of the rain facilitates a flirtation that being witnessed sets off a chain of events.
Insomnia runs through these stories as it does through the lives of those who live with it. Many characters lie awake at night reviewing past events,
No matter how hard she tried to will herself into oblivion, a constant flurry of unrelated items filled her head like debris caught in a dust storm.
Light sleepers may find themselves turning over the stories presented in The Map of Bihar in their minds. There is much to think about in this collection, it has a lot to say about our place as an individual in a global community. I keep thinking about the man playing Frisbee alone, sometimes it is possible to be lonely when surrounded by people, sometimes all we need is a small event to reconnect. Swinney’s stories nudge us towards that consideration by showing us what happens when we keep ourselves to ourselves.
Erinna Mettler is an author and editor. Her first novel Starlings was published by Revenge Ink and her new short story collection Fifteen Minutes was brought out by Unbound. Erinna is part of the literary group Rattle Tales and she is co-founder of The Bright Prize.
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