Meena Kandasamy double feature: When I Hit You & Exquisite Cadavers

Chosen by Farhana

Meena Kandasamy’s novel, When I Hit You, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018 and went on to be crowned book of the year by The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Observer and the Financial Times. Meena’s next book, Exquisite Cadavers, came out last year and it is another novel that showcases the author’s powerful, propulsive prose and her inventiveness when it comes to form. This is a writer with something to say and a dazzling way to say it.

Firstly, some background. Born in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, Meena is a poet, translator, fiction writer, essayist and social justice activist currently based in East London. When I Hit You: Or, The Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife (2017), is her second novel, which drew upon her own experience within an abusive marriage, to raise awareness of domestic violence and marital rape in modern India. Exquisite Cadavers (Nov. 2019) is her third novel, a work of experimental fiction. It is her last two works that we will focus on today...

When I Hit You is a stonking good read, which haunts you long after you’ve finished. Written in the first person, it tells the story of a funny, intelligent, passionate and big-hearted young writer who falls in love and marries a dashing university professor, who whisks her away from her family and friends in Chennai and Kerala to a lush, secluded coastal area in Mangalore. And promptly bullies, batters and gaslights her into submission... Which might not sound like the kind of book you want to read, but hear me out! ‘My mother has not stopped talking about it...’ Firstly, you know from the get-go that the narrator survives to tell the tale, which is certainly harrowing in parts. However, it is never gratuitous, and you soon find yourself swept away by the mystery of how such a strong and independent woman finds herself in this position, and then by the way she uses the act of writing itself to survive and ultimately escape. ‘Can I write this novel... Will I be betrayed by these words I choose? How many words can you write before they turn traitors?’

When I Hit You is also a book that is warm, witty, personal, political and even cinematic in parts. This is aided by a structure that is bookmarked with quotations from a variety of other texts, with chapters that alternate between memories/ flashbacks and the main plot. The novel deals with big themes such as marriage, family, feminism, the pressure to stay in relationships, and male violence against women. However, the violence (the worst is ‘off-screen’) never detracts from the main character's dignity, fierceness and capacity for hope. And love. ‘To flirt is to give a fresh twist to each word. I make you my own by building a little hut inside each of the words that you use, and staying with you there to watch the sunsets.’ The book also raises questions such as, Whose story is this? How do we take back our stories when they are in danger of appropriation or dismissal by others? How do men in power take away women’s confidence and infantilise them into submission? Why does writing frighten others, and how can it become our armour and means of survival? How can we use the language of the coloniser to be inventive and disrupt expected narratives about brown women, and find our own voices? The novel doesn’t have all the answers of course, but it certainly asks fascinating questions.

Exquisite Cadavers also focuses on marriage, but swaps India for the UK. Told in the omniscient third person, it follows Karim and Maya, a young couple navigating love in London. Karim is a fledgling filmmaker, originally from Tunisia, who is working on his dissertation and ‘wants to make a British film to suit the requirements of the course, not the Arabian movie they want out of him’. Maya, who is described as mixed-race but assumed by most to be white-English (as we are told in the author’s notes, but more on this later), has her own problems, which include a dodgy dad, unstable employment, and a sudden pregnancy. And when Karim’s brother is arrested in Tunis and Karim goes find him, Maya is faced with tough decisions and the couple’s relationship is tested further… Marriage, love, authenticity, fathers, motherlands, new homes, race, borders and belonging - this novel also tackles some hefty issues. And that’s just the main narrative. For, as I mentioned above, Exquisite Cadavers also contains a secondary narrative in the form of margin notes, which act as a commentary on the author’s craft choices, and also on contemporary life, news and political events. ‘[Amongst] a Western audience… No one treats us as writers, only as diarists who survived’, she writes in the margins, after mentioning the reception of her previous novel, which was inspired by her experience of an abusive marriage but was mislabelled by some as memoir.

The use of these margin notes in Exquisite Cadavers is intriguing. Not least due to the choice they offer in terms of how to read the book. Eg Do we read the main story and ignore the margin notes? (No!) Or, do we read the whole of one first, and then go back and read the other? (Maybe.) Or, do we read a chapter of the main story first, and then read the twinned-commentary, before going onto the next chapter? (What I opted for.) Clearly, there is no right or wrong answer. Either way, I was fascinated by this style of storytelling, which appears to divide truth and fiction, yet also questions the way that we see and feel about things. Eg in chapter one of the main narrative, seemingly innocuous objects such as stacked coffee mugs, clean linen and ashtrays take on potentially sinister roles in terms of what they may ‘hide’ about Karim and Maya’s relationship. And later, after Karim rushes off to Tunis to find his brother, Maya’s discovery of Karim’s project notes include an entire folder labelled ‘Notes on Alienation’, which forces Maya to question how well she really knows her husband and whether she should stay in London, or go to be with him.

Individuals and couples, truth and fiction, and everything in between - both When I Hit You and Exquisite Cadavers are just two of the works of a writer who is at the top of her game, in full command of her stories and how she wants to tell them. It’s a pleasure to read and (awe)inspiring to witness, and we at Desi Reads highly recommend both.

Photo credit: Teri Pengilley

To find out more about When I Hit You, click here

To find out more about Exquisite Cadavers, click here