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.