It’s easy to forget how relentlessly the years rack up, especially in the apparent pause of the past 20 months, leaving the shared certainties of what once seemed like the height of modernity to recede with deceptive speed until they finally appear, in the safety of hindsight, as at once quaint and faintly barbaric.
The stories that make up Janet H. Swinney‘s second collection might be set largely in the previous century, but they refuse to let the reader off the hook with the security of temporal distance. Brand names may have withered to the point of collective amnesia, and the ways that people are kept in their place may, for now, be more subtle, but the stultifying effects of being levelled down continue to batter and bruise.
Which makes it sound as though The House With Two Letter-Boxes must be heavy going, hectoring and humourless. In fact, one of its strengths (a tone it holds in common with Sophie Willan’s more contemporary televisual counterpart, Alma’s Not Normal) is that it never takes itself too seriously. It recognises that bleak circumstances are just a shade more bearable for their moments of black comedy.
These are stories that are set, in the main, in communities that are close-knit to the point of claustrophobia, where a net curtain network of neighbourhood watch women are the self-appointed, not-so-secret police keeping their eye out for any infraction deemed worthy of disapproving gossip. Horizons are narrow and escape routes few, in times in which the different coloured livery on the next-town-but-one’s public transport is enough to carry the faintest whiff of the exotic, and glamour comes at the cost of pain inflicted by the caustic chemical arsenal of the local hairdresser’s armoury.
Violence, characteristically male, is ingrained across the generations, like coal dust worked into a miner’s veins. More insidiously, like mines of a different kind, it’s embedded close to the surface, waiting on a hair trigger for the wrong word to be said, the wrong look to be given, to excuse its detonation. Hemmed in by the tripwire of masculine anger on the one front, and feminine censure on the other, the breathing spaces for resistance are few. In the opening Slipping The Cable, Ida finds both respite and eventual release from the captivity of Elliot, her captivating other half, via knitting.
If violence is ever near to hand, so is sexuality. The women in these stories chafe constantly against the morality of the preceding generation. Ida’s passions cloud her judgement, in part because she has never been taught to expect them. Swinney’s protagonists have the depth and fleshiness that D.H. Lawrence, writing about similar communities around his native Nottingham, struggled to imbue in his own female characters, tending instead to divide them reductively into ideals of virginity or sexuality. The women in these stories, by contrast, ring true.
As do the men. For every Elliott, tightly wound and primed to explode, there is a Norman, the Boo Radley-like hero of Tenterhooks, who, while his body is disfigured and his presence shunned, nonetheless maintains an empathetic tenderness of heart.
No matter their gender, the voices of Swinney’s characters are captured with a fine ear, alert to the comic, whether intentional or not, of Viz at its richest and best. If her dialogue has the feel of conversations eavesdropped, then her prose has the knack of crocheting complexity with apparent simplicity, line by line, until the reader is able to see the fully worked intricacy of the pattern.
It’s a collection whose many seams are as abundant with gold as they are of coal.
The House With Two Letter-Boxes by Janet H. Swinney is published by Fly On The Wall Press and available to buy from December 3, 2021. You can pre-order here.