When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

Here is another example of a major literary prize bringing to my attention a new author. Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife has been shortlisted this year for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the winner of which will be announced in the first week of June.

When I Hit You
Juggernaut Books Hardback Edition

When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is a raw and visceral story of an abusive marriage. It is also a novel that explores how writing helps the woman, the unnamed narrator, find solace and make sense of what is happening.

When the novel opens, we already know that the unnamed narrator managed to walk out of this violent marriage.

Here’s how it begins:

My mother has not stopped talking about it.

Five years have passed, and with each year, her story has mutated and transformed, most of the particulars forgotten, the sequence of events, the date of the month, the day of the week, the time of the year, the etcetera and the so on, until only the most absurd details remain.

The mother prefers her story telling in metaphors and finds various ways to convey how her daughter suffered in her marriage without really finding the need to explicitly dwell on the actual chain of events.

But the narrator is having none of it. She is firm that she must write her own story.

Much as I love my mother, authorship is a trait that I have come to take very seriously. It gets on my nerves when she steals the story of my life and builds her anecdotes around it. It’s plain plagiarism. It also takes a lot of balls to do something like that – she’s stealing from a writer’s life – how often is that sort of atrocity even allowed to happen? The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story.

We learn how the narrator meets her abusive husband – she was a student then leaning towards the Left, and he was a revolutionary who seduced her with his ideas.

He was a college lecturer, but as far Left as they came and as orthodox as it was possible to be. He wore his outlaw air with charm, his Communist credentials without guile. He had been a Naxalite guerilla (‘Maoist,’ he corrected me). An underground revolutionary. He had assumed at least ten different names in three years. The element of danger provided an irresistible aura around him. I loved this sense of adventure. I loved his idealism, I found the dogmatic obsession endearing.

They marry and it all begins to unravel. He gradually starts controlling her. It begins in a relatively minor but incredibly frustrating way. He forces her to close down her Facebook account, keeps tabs on her emails and her phone calls. The narrator begins to find her herself isolated as she is cut away from any meaningful contact with the outside world.

But as the days go by this escalates into full blown abuse – beating and rape.

He is channelling his anger, practicing his outrage. I am the wooden cutting board banged against the countertop. I am the clattering plates flung into the cupboards. I am the unwashed glass being thrown to the floor. Shatter and shards and diamond sparkle of tiny pieces. My hips and thighs and breasts and buttocks. Irreversible crashing sounds, a fragile sight of brokenness as a petty tyrant indulges in a power-trip. Not for the first time, and not for the last.

Kandasamy’s storytelling is non-linear. This means that while we do get an idea of the chain of events, the story is not narrated in the order in which these events occurred. Rather Kandasamy picks up various themes and each chapter is dedicated to that.

Thus, in one chapter the narrator focuses on the tumultuous two year relationship she has with a much older politician much before her marriage to her current husband. She talks about her naivete and what she assumes to be love, only to realize that when pushed towards making a choice, the politician goes for his career.

In another chapter, the narrator talks about the letters she writes to ‘lovers she has never seen, or heard, to lovers who do not exist, to lovers she invents on a lonely morning.’

But in every chapter there is always a sense of menace lurking around, that uneasy feeling of an impending disaster ahead. Indeed, the chapters which focus on the actual physical violence and rape are quite gut-wrenching and disturbing.

However, the narrator finds some sort of meaning in her chosen profession – writing. Writing helps her deal with her suffering and pain, something her husband does not like, instead finding ways to thwart her at every turn.

I cannot agree with what he has to say. To me, it sounds strange, alien almost, to imagine that my poem will be the source of future trouble, that a poem will prevent us from healing.  The poem is the healing, I tell him. It’s by writing this that I can get over it.

Despite such a gruesome subject matter, the story is not without hope. After enduring so much, the narrator manages to walk out of the marriage in the nick of time. And her parents finally support her, even though they were slow to accept the realities much earlier on for fear of being judged by Indian society.

Of course, when the topic is as grim as an abusive marriage, any novel can come across as nothing but a misery memoir.

But not in Kandasamy’s hands. She writes with poetic intensity and grace, and her intelligence simply shines on every page. Her prose is lush, and her narrative quite compelling making you want to keep turning the pages.

It seems that Kandasamy is examining every facet of this doomed marriage from an angle – writing is something that helps her do that – as she ponders over her role as a housewife which her husband chains her to, the pressure on her to produce a child, and her parents’ initial reaction to her abuse telling her to bear with it in the hopes that the husband will turn over a new leaf. In a culture where divorce has negative connotations, and given they are in denial, they would rather their daughter stick it out rather than be berated by society.

Kandasamy also reflects on the right of a woman to express desire, and how in many cases it is always assumed to be a man’s prerogative.

When I Hit You in many ways is autobiographical – Kandasamy was the victim of an abusive marriage. But she refused to bow down, crafting instead a powerful novel in a unique voice. And she brought to the fore the sad truth that even educated women can become victims of domestic violence – both physical and mental.


The Quarry – Damon Galgut

In my last post, I talked about how when you come to love certain authors, all their books (both the backlist and the forthcoming releases) become essential reading.

Deborah Levy is one of them.

In that list, I would also include the South African author Damon Galgut.

Incidentally, as was the case with Levy, it was the Booker Prize which once again introduced me to this excellent writer.

The Quarry
Grove Press, Black Cat Edition

The Quarry is a tense and unsettling tale of cat and mouse set in the bleak, desolate terrain of rural South Africa. It explores the concept of freedom, and the price that one has to pay for it.

Here’s how the book opens:

Then he came out of the grass at the side of the road and stood without moving. He rocked very gently on his heels. There were blisters on his feet that had come from walking and blisters in his mouth that had come from nothing, except his silence perhaps, and bristles like glass on his chain.

The main protagonist is never named but it is clear from the opening ages that he is a man hunted and on the run. Just what exactly he is escaping from is something we will never know.

As he walks resolutely across the harsh and barren landscape, he runs into a minister who is on his way to a town to take up a new position there. He offers to give the man a ride.

In due course, they reach a quarry – abandoned and empty – on the side of the road and halt there.

There were boulders at the bottom of the quarry and trees warped into crazed curious shapes and what appeared to be holes in the earth. He could see no clear path down and it was a wonder to him how men had ever mined this hole.

The minister and the man spend some time by the quarry, knocking down a few drinks while in the car, and trying to make conversation.

And then something terrible happens.

All of it takes place within the first few pages itself, and I will not reveal any further.

But as the novel progresses, we are introduced to some more characters – the policeman, and a couple of petty criminals, who are brothers named Valentine and Small.

Somewhere along the way the lives of Valentine and Small become entwined with that of the main protagonist, so much so that you feel it’s all blurred, with not much to distinguish between the fates that befall the three of them.

And then there is one point in the novel, where you get the feeling that even the hunter and the hunted are one.

He sat down on the ground and waited. When the policeman climbed back out of the dam he got up again and went on. He was no longer sure that there was a difference between them or that they were separate from each other and they moved on together across the surface of the world and the sun went down and it got dark and still they continued in duet. They moved through the night in faintest silhouette like dreams that the soil was having.

Midway through the novel, the protagonist is consumed by this persistent urge to clear his conscience, and in the process sets off a chain of events leading to the final outcome.

In a novel of this kind where not much can be revealed for fear of spoiling the plot, it makes sense to focus more on the quality of writing.

It’s where Damon Galgut excels.

His prose is lean but lyrical, stripped back, and bare, pretty much like the stark South African landscape.

The story reads like an allegorical tale and a sense of unease prevails throughout. This is characteristic of most of Galgut’s novels, set as they are in a South Africa where the transition post-apartheid has been anything but easy.

Rural South Africa is unflinching and unyielding – heightened by Galgut’s descriptions…

It was early afternoon and the sun was hot as they drove. They passed the carcass of an animal next to the road on which three black crows were feeding and one of them flapped up ahead of the car and lumbered off over the veld. The road went through a salt pan that was cracked like a mirror and in which there was nothing alive. There were river beds that were dry.

And then later on…

The sun went down in a sewage of colour and the landscape looked violent an strange. At first the darkness was complete. The only light came from the stars. He thought he could change course in the night but the sky to his left grew paler and he could see the horizon and then the moon came up. It was full and round with a blue barren face and it cast its radiance down. The grass was like metal in the thin blue light and everything could be seen.

Indeed, The Quarry is an apt name for the novel signifying as it does both – the deep mining pit where quite a bit of the action takes place, as well as the man being pursued by the hunter.

As we race towards the conclusion, we will keep wondering – Will the protagonist find an ace up his sleeve and manage to dodge the law? Or will the law get the better of him?

The Quarry, published in 1995, is one of Galgut’s earlier works and all the more impressive for that.

However, he became known to a much wider audience (that includes me) post the Booker shortlisting of his wonderful novel The Good Doctor in 2003.

Subsequently, he went on to pen two more brilliant but very different novels – The Impostor, and In A Strange Room – which remain my favourites of all his books I have read so far, and which I wholeheartedly recommend.

As an aside, In A Strange Room was also shortlisted for the Booker…in 2010.

The Cost of Living – Deborah Levy

Though I don’t always agree with the winners and shortlist selection of The Man Booker Prize, it has nevertheless introduced me to some interesting authors, whom I had never heard of before but have subsequently gone on to love.

Deborah Levy is one of them, and I first heard of her when her novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the prize in 2012. It did not win that year, but I loved that book – it was unsettling and intense.

More importantly, I became a fan of Levy’s writing with every intention of exploring her backlist as well as her forthcoming novels.

She did not disappoint. Hot Milk, another wonderful novel (it made its way into my Best of 2016 list), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016 only to miss out yet again.

So when her latest offering The Cost of Living was recently released, I knew I had to read it…

Cost of Living
Hamish Hamilton Signed First Edition

The Cost of Living is Deborah Levy’s second book of memoirs, or what can otherwise be called a ‘living autobiography.’ Levy touches upon a wide range of topics – writing, feminism, motherhood, and her marriage.

Here’s how it begins:

As Orson Welles told us, if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story.

After a life with her husband for more than a decade, their marriage falls apart. Levy very eloquently describes how her life completely changes when she is approaching her fifties, with the result that she now has to carve out a new beginning with her teenage daughters.

Can she manage? Is she in the right frame of mind and the right age to start afresh? Yes, she strongly affirms.

Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want.

Levy’s life suddenly becomes hectic. She is a single mother now with two kids, and has to also find the space and the time to pursue her career as a writer. Not only because she enjoys doing so, but also because she has bills to pay.

When I was around fifty and my life was supposed to be slowing down, becoming more stable and predictable, life became faster, unstable, unpredictable. My marriage was the boat and I knew that if I swam back to it, I would drown.

Many sections are devoted to describing her new life in a new apartment and new surroundings, and as she juggles different sets of responsibilities, she still manages to find humour.

The bleak communal corridor walls of the building had been painted a speckled grey in the 1970s, which I suppose matched the grey plastic that had been laid over the mangy green carpets. These corridors were lit all day and all night, a sinister, unchanging twilight. At other times they felt amniotic and trippy, as if we were floating in grey membrane. My friends thought they looked like something out of The Shining. I started to call them The Corridors of Love.

Change is never easy, but Levy faces it head on…

The new situation had freed something that had been trapped and stifled. I became physically strong at fifty, just as my bones were supposed to be losing their strength. I had energy because I had no choice but to have energy. I had to write to support my children and I had to do all the heavy lifting. Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.

Levy had to write, she wanted to write. But her apartment is not conducive to writing. Then, a guardian angel in the form of Celia comes to her rescue. Celia offers Levy her shed giving the latter her own private space to continue her craft.

It also gives Levy the opportunity to discuss what she loves best – writing. She completes three books in the shed, one of which is Swimming Home. As mentioned earlier, it goes on to being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, giving Levy the recognition that she deserves.

Levy also talks about what it is to be a woman. She discusses the role of women in history and the part they play in society – how over the years they have been expected to confirm to certain norms that are carved out for them.

It is so mysterious to want to suppress women. It is even more mysterious when women want to suppress women. I can only think we are so very powerful that we need to be suppressed all the time.

Obviously, they don’t hold much water today because women can now change the script of the story in a way that suits them and allows them to thrive and excel.

Levy also ruminates on the death of her mother, the relationship that they had, and motherhood in general. Being a mother is a complex role, as she puts it:

If we do not disclose our feelings to her, we mysteriously expect her to understand them anyway. And if she moves beyond us, comes close to being a self that is not at our service, she has transgressed from the mythic, primal task of being our protector and nurturer. Yet, if she comes too close, she suffocates us, infecting our fragile courage with her contagious anxiety.

The section where she describes her mother’s last days, and how Levy ensures that her mom gets to eat her favourite ice lollies is particularly poignant.

The Cost of Living then is another incredibly lovely piece work; of rumination and reflection by Levy. It’s a memoir that is intelligent, witty and humane. As with her earlier novels, Deborah Levy’s writing is sensual, and her prose always has that extra bite and verve that makes her unique. It draws you into her spell.

Here she is quoting the author Marguerite Duras to whom ‘writing comes like the wind’…

It’s naked, it’s made of ink, it’s the thing written, and it passes like nothing else passes in life, nothing more, except life itself.

And with this, Levy presents to us, her readers, her latest and wonderful published memoir.

Cost of living sign
Hamish Hamilton First Edition Signed by Deborah Levy

The White Book – Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)

It is always exciting to discover a new author. Even more so when you have a gut feeling of pretty much loving each and every book that author writes.

There are many that fit the bill. But today I will be focusing on Korean author Han Kang.

I was introduced to her writing, when her novel The Vegetarian was translated and released to an English speaking audience a couple of years back. Although she has penned quite a few books, The Vegetarian was the first to be translated into English by the ever reliable and interesting publisher Portobello Books.

It garnered rave reviews in the book blogging world. And all of it highly justified. Because I was blown away by the novel, and it made into my Top Books of the Year list in 2015.

The Vegetarian is about a supposedly unremarkable woman (and this is her husband’s point of view), who one day decides to stop eating meat. Not such a big thing in today’s world. But in a strict society such as Korea with its set ways and traditions, it is an act of rebellion that shocks her family. It is a novel like no other and wonderfully translated by Deborah Smith.

Since then, a couple of novels have been translated – one is Human Acts (which I have yet to read), and the other is The White Book, which is the one I will be reviewing.

And as was the case last time, Deborah Smith’s translation of The White Book is incredible too.

Onto the novel itself then…

Portobello Books Hardback Edition

The White Book is a haunting piece of work about grief, loss and healing.

This is no linear narrative; the author chooses to tell her story in a fragmentary style, in a series of short paragraphs on every page. The tone is quiet and meditative.

Here’s how the book opens:

In the spring, when I decided to write about white things, the first thing I did was to make a list.

The list?

Salt, snow, ice, moon, rice, waves and so on.

It is through the listing of these objects that the author explores various themes throughout the book.

One major theme that dominates is her sister’s death, two hours after she is born prematurely.

Now and then her mother would be struck by a sense of foreboding and give a corner of the quilt a tug, but the baby’s eyes opened only briefly, grew dim and then slid shut. At some point, even that scant response was no longer forthcoming. And yet, before dawn, when the first milk finally came from her mother’s breasts and she pressed her nipple between the tiny lips, she found that, despite everything, the baby was still breathing. Though she had, by now, slipped from consciousness, the nipple in her mouth encouraged a soft swallowing, gradually growing stronger. Still with her eyes closed the whole time. Not knowing what boundary, she was now passing over.

The narrator ponders the randomness of her birth and life itself, and reflects – Would she have been born if her sister hadn’t died?

This life needed only one of us to live it.  If you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now.

My life means yours is impossible.

Only in the gap between darkness and light, only in that blue-tinged breach, do we manage to make out each other’s faces.

This is also a book about nature, about how fleeting life is…

In the distance, the surface of the water bulges upwards. The winter sea mounts its approach, surging closer in. The wave reaches its greatest possible height and shatters in a spray of white. The shattered water slides back over the sandy shore.

Standing at this border where land and water meet, watching the seemingly endless recurrence of the waves (though this eternity is in fact illusion: the earth will one day vanish, everything will one day vanish), the fact that our lives are no more than brief instants is felt with unequivocal clarity.

Not surprisingly, the colour ‘white’ is a prominent thread weaving its way through this work – it highlights cleanliness, newness, and purity…

Here she is on ‘salt’…

One day she took a handful of coarse salt and examined it closely. Those crystals had a cool beauty, their white touched with grey. For the first time, she had a real sense of the power that lay within this material: the power to preserve, the power to sterilize and to heal.

And on freshly laundered bed linen…

Is it because of some billowing whiteness within us, unsullied, inviolate, that our encounters with objects so pristine never fail to leave us moved?

There are times when the crisp white of freshly laundered bed linen can seem to speak. When that pure-cotton fabric grazes her bare flesh, just there, it seems to tell her something. You are a noble person. Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of.  

But ‘white’ signals harshness too…

The sun’s rays pale slightly as the frost begins to form. Trees shiver off their leaves, incrementally lightening their burden. Solid objects like stones or buildings appear subtly more dense. Seen from behind, men and women bundled up in heavy coats are saturated with a mute presentiment, that of people beginning to endure.

Occasionally other colours seep in…a crane by the water’s edge one summer day in Seoul is “entirely white save for its bright-red feet”, or when the narrator as an eight-year old sees “a thousand points of silver sweep in from the distant sea” which she is told is an anchovy shoal. Death is compared to “black writing bleeding through thin paper.

Indeed, The White Book is a novel that reads like a lyrical poem. It has the effect of a soothing balm on jangled nerves. Reading it is akin to an experience that is mysterious and otherworldly. You never quite know what to make of it but that is really not the point – it’s the journey that’s affirming.

Despite the weight of bereavement, the narrator has hope…

The sight of a dish of wrapped sugar cubes still evokes the sense of witnessing something precious. There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is coloured by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.

There is something pleasing about the physical book too. The hardcover is white as is the dustjacket. Inside, most of the paragraphs fit on a page – on the right side, while the left side is left blank. Thus, not only does the writing evoke a reflective mood but the generous expanse of white washing over you is also quite exhilarating.

It’s not all about the reader though and what he/she experiences coursing through the book.

Writing it has been therapeutic too. The narrator hopes that the process of writing “would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.”

The White Book is something we need too.