Tag Archives: Atlantic Books

When I Hit You – Meena Kandasamy

One of the joys about a prize longlist, and forgive me because I am sure I have said this before and am pretty certain I will say again, is discovering authors and books that you might not have otherwise. This was the case with the inclusion of Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist earlier this year. Having read it though, I am sure it is a book that I am sure will be very high on my ‘best of list’ at the end of the year as whilst it is an incredibly confronting read (trigger warning here) it is also an exceptionally powerful and important read too.

Sometimes, when she is in a more relaxed mood, and feeling flush with tenderness for her husband of thirty-six years, she will say something along the lines of: ‘He is such a devoted father. You remember the time we had that trouble, and my daughter came back to us, with her feet looking like a prisoner’s, all blackened and cracked and scarred and dirt an inch thick around every toenail? He washed her feet with his own hands, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing them with hot water and salt and soap and an old toothbrush and applying cream and baby oil to clean and soften them. He would cry to me afterward. If this is the state of her feet, what must she have endured inside her? Her broken marriage broke my husband, too.’ But that is the kind of thing that she says only to close relatives, to family friends, and the few remaining people who are cordial to her even though she has a runaway daughter at home. That is about six and a half people in all of Chennai.

As When I Hit You opens, we meet our unnamed narrator as she is recovering from her abusive marriage back at her parents’ house. It is in this place where she is spoken about almost as if she is not that, more a shadowy form within the household, that after hearing her story told by others so many times that she decides that it is time for her to tell her own tale and in doing so find her voice and it’s power once more. She has had her story and voice claimed before and she will not have it happen again.

As the title suggests this is not going to be a comfortable read, nor should it be. We follow our narrator from just before she meets her husband to be, her writing career is going well and she is not long out of a relationship that didn’t work out for many reasons when she meets the also unnamed university professor. The two catch each other’s eye and eventually they marry and that is when everything changes. They move to a new city in a different part of the country where the language is not her own, making shopping difficult let alone any possible friendships or future cries for help. Then, in a slow well planned and systematically manipulative way, her husband starts to police her phone, delete her contacts, her email accounts, alienate her for her loved ones (or watch her when she phones them) and colleagues, slowly she becomes isolated almost without being certain it’s happening, or worse, seeing it as unreasonable.

There are not many things a woman can become when she is a housewife that does not speak any of her mother-tongues. Not when her life revolves around her husband. Not when she has been trapped for two months in the space of three rooms and a veranda.
Primrose Villa, with its little walled garden, its two side entrances, has the quaint air of kept secrets. It is the sort of setting that demands drama. The white and magenta bougainvillea creepers in their lush September bloom. Papaya plants, along the east wall, with their spiralling, umbrella leaves and frail trunks. A coconut tree in its advanced years, its leaves designed to frame the solitary moon at night and play an air-piano in the rain.

One of the things I found so powerful and yet so unsettling is the style in which the narrator delivers When I Hit You. There is a certain way in which Kandasamy puts you so completely in the narrators head that you feel like you are being coerced as you read on. It may seem an odd comparison, I was reminded of the storyline in The Archers, where Helen was coercively controlled by her husband Rob. His voice was in your ears through the aural power of radio which made you feel he was actually in your head, When I Hit You does this in book form which I didn’t think would be possible in text, Kandasamy proves me wrong.

No one knows the peculiar realities of my situation.
How do you land a job when:

  • you end up somewhere in the middle of the teaching semester?
  • you have no contacts in a strange city?
  • your husband has forced you off social media?
  • you have no phone of your own?
  • your husband monitors and replies to all messages addressed to you?
  • you do not speak the local language?
  • you have the wifely responsibility of producing children first?

That’s a long list already. These are not the regrets of an unemployed person. These are the complaints of an imprisoned wife.

The other elements of the power of the text is partly in the slow way it builds up, like it does in a coercive nature, beguiling you. It is also in the way that for the first two thirds there is almost no description of the physical abuse that she starts to endure, the mental abuse being the focus. This shifts in the final third and because you have been left to imagine how awful the abuse, violence and rape are, it becomes all the more horrifying when it starts to be described, more than you could ever imagine. I found this harrowing yet done to illustrate the horror fully, not to make you a voyeur or become graphic in some complicit way. It is shocking but it isn’t just done ‘to shock’.

Advice to young women who are into hero-worship: the world is full of women in love with the men who you are in love with.
Learn to live with that.

Kandasamy brings society, class and politics are all brought into the text too in varying ways. Our narrator doesn’t just blame her husband for what is going on, although it is his physical actions. She in part blames society and the role of wife, which she admits at points she tries to act as stereotypically as possible to be in order to be ‘the perfect wife’ who won’t get hit. How complicit is she, and any women, trying to conform and play that role? This isn’t portioning the blame on other women, to clarify, but looking at gender politics, what is deemed ‘correct behaviour’ for the sexes and why is it not fought against. Politics also becomes a part of the abuse, her husband often punishing her for not conforming to, questioning or worse making him question his communist views. How dare she have an intellect and voice it. That voice must be supressed, that intellect questioned and broken.

This links to what I thought gave this tale an additional edge. Our unnamed narrator is middle class, domestic violence is often portrayed as being something that happens predominantly in the working classes. The implication often being that anyone suffering at the abusive hands of their partner isn’t clever enough, or socially mobile enough, to chance – which we all know is utter rubbish. As Kandasamy shows, both in the text and in the fact that this is auto fiction, this can happen to anyone regardless of their class, race or intellect.

As you may have guessed by now I think that When I Hit You is an incredible book. It is (and I don’t really like this term but there is no other word for it) an important book that needs to be read. Kandasamy creates such a vivid claustrophobic world that slowly engulfs you as it does the narrator. Her writing, which I haven’t really talked about in terms of form, can go from poetic darkness to stark pointed poignancy (there are bullet points in some parts, like the narrator is trying to work out the system behind her situation, there are short powerful thought provoking bursts of a sentence or two) in either scenario never a word is wasted. It is the book that, without question, I will giving to everyone I know this year.

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2018, Meena Kandasamy, Review, Women's Prize for Fiction

Lovely London Loot…

The week before last I finally bit the bullet and went back to London for the day. Having left almost a year and a half ago, and not under the most favourable of circumstances, I will admit I was feeling very nervous about it. However, the day was mainly about books and if anything is going to make a daunting trip somewhere better then it is going to be books isn’t it? I had been kindly invited by Lynsey at Transworld to come to a dinner with S.J Bolton in the evening and as a trip down to London is rare for me now I decided to make a day of it.

I could bore you with the dreadful journey down, I had reserved seats (thanks again Lynsey) and yet the train was so overcrowded, from the start, they cancelled all reserved seats and so it was a fight for any seat going. Oh the grump I was in! Fortunately the man who decided to tell me his life story (and I had my best ‘I am reading’ expression/concentrated glare on too) got off after two stops by which point reading went out the window as I was too busy eavesdropping (see Dovegreyreader’s post on the joys of being nosey here) on the fascinating conversation between mother and daughter who were dishing all the family secrets. I actually had to hold myself back from say ‘oh she sounds awful’ when the mother had finished a five minute rant about her son’s new girlfriend and asked her daughter what she thought.  I do love a family drama, which was apt as my first meeting of the day was brunch with my aunty who was in London too. I then had the joys of meeting my friend Dom for lunch (who I hadn’t seen since I left, which was far too long) and then headed to meet some publishers, the first of whom reside in my favourite place in London, Bedford Square…

The reason I love this square so much is that it feels like Victorian London, be it the posh bit, is still weirdly living and breathing there. The area doesn’t seem to have changed and still has a certain atmosphere. If I could ever afford to live anywhere I could then I think it would be Bedford Square. Anyway the reason I was there was to meet Alice at Bloomsbury! I couldn’t actually believe that I have been emailing Alice for about five years and I had never met her before, and I even lived in London for a few years of the correspondence, shocking. We had a lovely brew and discussed lots and lots of bookish bits and bobs, both projects coming from me and titles coming from Bloomsbury. I also laughed when I discovered Alice knows me so well, she has speedily discovered ‘hmmm, I am quite busy at the moment’ means ‘I have absolutely no desire to read that but am too polite to say, thanks anyway’ – we both giggled about this as I was unaware, till she pointed it out, that I did it. It was too soon time to leave but I did manage to take some books, just a few…

Next up I headed only a few streets further afield to meet Frances and Corinna from Atlantic Books. Again, these are two of the publicists that I have had the longest relationships with (I am not showing favouritism here, it’s just true) and yet had never met even though emails and parcels often fly through the ether/through the joys of Royal Mail (any publishers reading this please stop using DPD couriers, you will notice I never receive these parcels because they are useless) and so it was lovely to sit and get to know two people, who I already feel I already know, all the better over coffee. We discussed some very exciting autumn titles and I came away with yet more gifts…

I don’t want to appear to have favouritism towards a certain book; however, Frances and Corinna had been discussing new books when Frances ran off to get an older book. She had suddenly thought of it and ‘just know you will love it, seriously’. Well as soon as I saw the cover of ‘Woman’s World’ it was love, however when I opened it I was spell bound. Graham Rawle’s debut novel is made from cuttings from magazines and papers used to make a story, it sounds bonkers so here is a picture…

Doesn’t that just look amazing? Even the page numbers are from magazines. It really blows me away. Apparently Rawle’s new book is experimental too, based on random cards he has found on the streets over the years, I am very excited about these and ‘Woman’s World’ is getting read very, very soon. So with my new loot I dashed off to meet the lovely Jane Harris, this is the joy of books – you sometimes fall in love with an author’s voice in books then meet them and they are just as lovely. We had a nice glass (or two) of wine, cackling away in the corner of a private members lounge.

I had to dash quickly after that to get to The Cage in Villiers Street to meet S.J Bolton for cheese and (more) wine. This was when I realised I had left my wallet somewhere during the day, would you believe it… I rang around and someone had handed it in (whoever you are thank you), isn’t that amazing? I didn’t even begrudge a round trip, lots of walking as my travel card was in my wallet, to get it, though I was embarrassed to then turn up to meet S.J. Bolton about an hour and a half/two hours late. She was lovely though, and it was nice to meet her before we record The Readers Summer Book Club which her novel ‘Now You See Me’ is one of the titles Gavin and I have chosen. I left with another goodie back of her books, a mug (which is in the dishwasher) and some other treats. Lovely stuff.

So a big thanks to everyone I saw, and apologies to some of the people I couldn’t see (next time I promise) but especially BIG thanks to Lynsey who treated me to such a lovely day out overall. It was nice to visit London, if briefly, and I am looking forward to returning in the not too distant future for something very exciting. I was shattered on the train back however I made a new friend, again thanks to books, but more on that later…

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

Now I have decided with the Man Booker Winners that as I read them I am not going to compare them to what else was long listed and short listed that year which I might have read. I don’t actually see any benefit in debating if it should have won if a) I haven’t read the whole long list and b) it doesn’t make any difference as I can’t change history… I know, I know, my mystical powers are weak! I am simply going to tell you what I think. Have I ever done a blog on how I review a book before? If not do let me know and I will do one in the coming weeks. Anyway onto the book in question…

The White Tiger is Aravind Adiga’s first novel and it is an incredibly accomplished first book which paints a vivid if slightly dark picture of ‘the real India’. We follow the story of Balram Halwai son of a rickshaw puller also known as ‘The White Tiger’ (which is of course the rarest of all the feline family) and his journey from a boy in a small village to ‘an entrepreneur’ in the big city via a life of servitude as a driver and, rather ominously, murder.

The story is undoubtedly a dark one and one in which Adiga is telling us of the corruption (which as Dovegreyreader brilliantly summed up in her review “just slimes off the page”) in India, its globalisation and how it has faired since the British moved out and American culture moved in. We see the darker sides of life out there that ‘tourists’ to India might not. Though this is a hard look at India and is very gritty for the reader, amongst the dark though there is humour thanks to such a wonderful protagonist. If you are puzzling over how a murderer could be likeable and funny then you need to read the book. Mind you there are a few other novels where I have felt that way too… oh dear, should I worry?

Balram’s personality changes as his surroundings do. He starts of as a naïve but clever school boy, and then becomes a disheartened young man in the tea shops before becoming a wry, calculating and knowing servant to his repugnant masters. He tells us; actually he isn’t telling us his story he is telling it to someone else. We read his story told in the form of letters to The Premiere of China. Which is oddly the only bit of the book that I didn’t really take to as I couldn’t work out why you would tell such a tale and admit to the things that he does if it might very well end up on the desk of someone as important as that.

Bar that one glitch I found the book incredible. It’s so readable and that was all down to Balram and his character (the font of a book helps though I find, more on that next week). I thought the way Adiga managed the plotting and story so we got to see so much of Indian life quite remarkable. We started in the villages looking at education, death, marriage and people who may be poor but make their life as rich as possible through the hard times (Balram’s Gran is a brilliantly calculating old woman – but then you would need to be). In Delhi we get the mix of the richest of the rich, the corruption of the government, the globalisation and Americanisation of the cities and all its gloss and glamour and the in contrast the prostitution, slum dwelling, and the life of those in servitude – the cockroach scenes freaked me out. All in all a great narrator, an unusual look at, and insight into, India and a highly accomplished debut novel.

I look forward to more novels by Adiga and hope that we see more novels from him. Arundhati Roy is an author I always wanted to read more works of after ‘The God of Small Things’ her Booker Winner but sadly we never did, maybe she is biding her time? One thing I will add about the book is the amount of people that I have seen reading it on the tube, I was going to do my report on that this weekend but I am going to hold off another week as am finding it quite interesting. Right I am off to read in the glorious Sunday sunshine.

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Filed under Aravind Adiga, Atlantic Books, Books of 2009, Man Booker, Review

The Cellist of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway

Sorry for the fact that I didn’t blog yesterday but I had a weekend of being quite under the weather sadly, I am feeling a bit better today though. The good thing about being sick though of course is the fact that I spent a lot of the weekend in bed reading and finally got round to reading the final Richard and Judy book of this years selection The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is set during the siege of Sarajevo which took place in the 1990’s although with the level of atrocities I couldn’t actually believe that it had taken place so recently but then I suppose similar things are still happening now. The whole tale behind The Cellist of Sarajevo is a fictional work based on the true story of Vedran Smajlovic who actually played Adagio in G Minor for 22 days to mark the death of each of the 22 people killed in the street queuing for bread. Steven Galloway opens the book with the cellist going out and playing for the first time. However the book doesn’t actually focus on him, more three particular people who have the cellist and his music enter their lives in some of the hardest times in their lives.

The three lives that we join during some of those 22 days are Dragan a man in his mid sixties, Arrow a female sniper and Kenan a man in his forties struggling without life’s necessities. Each one of these characters has the cellist in their lives. Dragan for example, whose family had left Sarajevo whilst he has stayed behind to look after his apartment which sadly got bombed and now lives in his sisters house, can hear the cellist as he plays roulette with his life simply crossing the road to get to the bakers. Kenan does the same as he travels across the whole city with the possibility of being shot in order to collect fresh water as the resources are running low and he collects it for his family and neighbour (who is a wonderfully difficult disagreeable character). Arrow’s story is the one that I found the most interesting, that of a female sniper who gets the job to protect the cellist from snipers and in doing so protecting the people of the city and their hope.

Through these three lives we are given snapshots of what happened in Sarajevo and how people lived, well barely existed through it all. Galloway writes these characters and their situations with a grim reality but with wonderful lyrical prose. I know you can’t call the subject a wonderful one but you know what I mean I hope. I found seeing the world through these peoples lives opened my eyes to what happened in Sarajevo and how people coped. How they explained it to their children, how they avoided catching up with people as all they would swap would be depressing tales of woe and how strangers, who might not chose to see each other if they could help it, come together in these times of trial.

I was incredibly impressed with this novel and as a final read of the Richard and Judy Challenge I thought it was one of the selections highlights (and I am really chuffed that I read them all) and without the challenge I might not have read it and I would have been missing out on a gem of a book. Though this has been one of the most emotional and horrific books in parts, I actually had to put the book down every so often to breath and compose myself before reading on, it is one of the best books that I have read in ages and would urge everyone to give it a go.

Now what should I read next. I have a pile of six contenders at the moment I just cant decide upon. ‘Daphne’ by Justine Picardie, ‘The White Tiger’ by Arvind Adiga, ‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood, ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid and two Salman Rushdie. ‘The Enchantress of Florence arrived in the post from Dovegreyreader this morning and I have been meaning to read ‘Midnights Children’ for ages. Oh its a quandry… any advice?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Review, Richard and Judy, Steven Galloway