Janet H Swinney on The Reading Life
“The Menace at the Gate” is the third marvelous set in India short story by Janet H Swinney which I have had the great pleasure of reading. I would not repeatedly read stories by an author if I did not find their work intriguing, interesting and insightful.
Swinney has the gifts of a first rate writer of historic fiction. Using background details derivitive from reality, she creates characters in and of their time, persons with a strong feel of vermisilitude and settings with near cinematic vividness. I can feel the heat, the sensual overloading, the political chaos and clash of cultures that are her the daily life of those in her stories, whether it be on a beach in Goa, the birthday observation of a venerated guru or, as in “The Menace at The Gate” the coming of age of a young woman in violent times.
As the story opens a young woman, maybe 18, is trying to sleep but the sweltering heat and the swarms of mosquitoes that won’t leave her alone keep sleep away. We are in a violent place, learning of acts of terrorism and political kilings. She lives with her parents, her aunt and uncle from England are visiting. As she tries to sleep, problems treated in her classes run through her mind. To make it worse, her period is late.
In opening of the story you can see the skill of a serious artist:
“Her period refused to come. She lay in turmoil beneath the ineffectual ceiling fan. No position brought relief from the heat. After days of tossing and turning and lying in limp sheets, her shoulders and her buttocks were disfigured by the blemishes served up by prickly heat, and the monsoon was still an age away.
Clans of mosquitoes infested the room, convening under the bed, as well as in the adjoining bathroom, where you took your pants down at your peril. Every night, before coming to bed, she fumigated the entire place with Deet, and plastered herself with Odomos. It made no difference. The evil empire persisted in rude good health, while she lay upon the bed like a living sacrifice. Despite a monstrous nightgown and cotton socks that came up almost to her knees, her ankles, wrists and toes were swollen with multiple bites, the flesh ripped raw with scratching.
Her mind was in no better state. Her head was filled with equations that she could not solve. The reek of formaldehyde from the lab was still in her nostrils. She had never guessed when she chose her subjects for Ten Plus, that even Biology, which was her favourite subject, would involve so much chemistry. She thrashed about the bed, struggling with valencies that were at odds with one another, and the chemical description of photosynthesis that she could not complete.”
We learn of terrible violence. In a very vivid scene the woman tries to relieve her stress through a casual sexual encounter, one that would horrify her conservative parents.
I dont want reveal too much of the exciting story line. The conclusion was very unexpected, dramatic and perfectly wrought.
I endorse this story to all lovers of form. It can serve as an object less about to write historical Short fiction.
I look forward to following the work of Janet H Swinney for many years.
Author supplied data
Repentant education inspector, based in London but with ties in India.
Eleven of her stories have appeared in print. The most recent of these, 'Political Events Have Taken a Turn,' appears in ‘The Sorcery of Smog.’ (Earlyworks Press 2018). Other stories have appeared online in ‘The Bombay Literary Magazine’, ‘Out of Print’, ‘Joao Roque’ and the ‘Indian Review’.
She was a runner-up in the London Short Story competition 2014, and nominated for the Eric Hoffer prize for prose 2012. Her first collection of stories will be published shortly by Circaidy Gregory Press. She is currently working on a play based on stories by Manto.
Find her on Facebook at Janet H Swinney – Addicted to Fiction, or at www.janethswinney.com