‘When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife’ by Meena Kandasamy

When I hit you

Fiction – hardcover; Atlantic Books; 256 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Shocking. Disturbing. Oppressive. But not without hope. These are the first words that spring to mind to describe Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife.

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize 2018, and longlisted for both the Jhalak Prize 2018 and the Dylan Thomas Prize 2018, this short novel is a ferociously powerful story about a young woman who endures an abusive marriage but manages to escape it in what appears to be the nick of time.

A brief, tumultuous marriage

When the book opens, the unnamed narrator has fled her unhappy marriage which lasted just four months. It’s five years after the fact, and her mother, with whom she now lives, “has not stopped talking about it”.

But the “writer is the one who controls the narrative” and so, by chapter two, we are thrust into the young woman’s past life as a new bride, living in an unfamiliar city in a small house where, within the space of two months, she has already learned to escape her husband’s wrath by dressing as dowdily as possible:

I should be blank. With everything that reflects my personality cleared out. Like a house after a robbery. Like a mannequin stripped of its little black dress and dragged away from the store window, covered in a bedsheet and locked off in the godown.

The book charts the disintegration of this mismatched pairing between a vibrant, worldly-wise middle-class woman, who is a writer, and a dashing university lecturer, who is abusive and controlling. It begins with small things — he forbids her from using Facebook, for instance, and then deletes her email account — and then, once he’s totally isolated her from family, friends and colleagues, slides into more damaging psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

Thematic chapters

Kandasamy doesn’t tell the story in a straightforward narrative arc. Yes, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, but the book is structured around thematic chapters: there’s the one about the narrator mourning all the lost lovers she never had; another about the two-year long love affair she had with a politician who was 20 years her senior; another looking at what prevents a woman from walking out of an abusive relationship; another about her husband’s slide into paranoia and delusion. But it’s the entire chapter devoted to rape within marriage, which makes for particularly uncomfortable (and sickening) reading.

Always there is the threat of violence in the air, the feeling that one must tip-toe around the home — no longer a place of sanctuary — to avoid being punished.

My husband is in the kitchen. He is channelling his anger, practising 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.

The prose, as you can probably tell from the excerpts I have quoted, is eloquent and heavy with metaphors and similes. I normally shun the clichéd phrase “beautiful writing”, but it’s a perfect description for what Kandasamy does here. She’s also a poet and I think that is very much evident in her narrative style, which feels so effortless to read.

Intellectual rigour

Yet on every page there are lines and entire passages that are ripe with meaning. There’s an intellectual rigour at play too, which may not be a surprise given that the author is also an academic who is outspoken on a range of issues including feminism, violence against women and annihilation of caste. I underlined so much of its contents I fear I may have ruined the book’s pages forever.

And while the contents are dark — boy, are they dark — the reader comes away feeling hopeful that the narrator has the potential to forge a new, happier life for herself, free from the shackles of a man who wanted to destroy her.  Intriguingly, Kandasamy says the book is based on her own brief, violent marriage in 2012. (This interview with her in The Wire explains more.)

When I Hit You was named in the Guardian‘s Best Books of 2017, the Daily Telegraph‘s Best Books of 2017, the Observer Best Books of 2017, and the Financial Times Best Books of 2017. It will probably appear on my best books of 2018 list at the end of the year.

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21 thoughts on “‘When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife’ by Meena Kandasamy

    • Doesn’t it! High up on my TBR too with so many trustworthy reviewers singing its praise, not to mention the prize elements; great review Kim – I’m especially intrigued by the juxtaposition of ‘beautiful writing’ combined with such a dark subject. Look forward to your thoughts too Cathy.

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    • It’s actually quite distressing to read in places… it’s the kind of book that takes you through the full gamut of emotions, from anger to heartbreak and back again. I won’t forget it in a hurry.

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  1. A really powerful review and especially pertinent as I read it just after a talk at Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival with Jess Phillips, the labour MP who worked for Women’s Aid for many years. After being undecided about this book, I have now ordered it.

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  2. Well I’m glad she escapes it, you read so many stories about India, and about women everywhere, where there is no escape. And each time, as a guy, you reflect on that slippery slope – from impatience, to taking the lead, to being a bit bossy, to controlling … I could say it’s not something that was thought about, let alone discussed when I was young, but by the time I was 20 I was surrounded by second wave feminists, so the information was there.

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    • I think that’s the one thing about this book that niggled a little: that she was in a position to escape, where so many others are forever trapped by circumstance/poverty etc. She was educated, strong willed and had understanding parents (although she had to work on them a little) who could take her in when she ran away. But I read it being supremely angry on her behalf: the fact she had to endure this man’s abuse in the first place.

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  3. Ach. I have such conflicted feelings about this book. On the one hand, you’re right, it’s powerful and heartbreaking and disturbing; on the other, I felt slightly strong-armed by it. It is not a book that gives the reader any option about how to read it, or how to feel once it’s over: there’s only one possible reaction to the story of a violent, abusive marriage, and although Kandasamy’s skill at evoking violence, control, and fear is immense, it also made the experience of reading the book a bit…I don’t know, claustrophobic? Narrow? I never felt as though I was going to be surprised by my own reaction at any point; it was a bit reading-by-numbers.

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    • Agree the book is a claustrophobic read, but surely that’s the point? Being caught up in an abusive marriage *IS* claustrophobic.

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      • Totally agree. But it feels frustrating, when reading a work of fiction, to have almost all avenues of interpretation shut down by the sheer emotional force of the text; that’s why it strikes me as a piece better told as creative non-fiction than as a novel, which is a form that historically opens up ambiguity and the possibility of various different readings.

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        • Even though it is branded as a novel, my understanding is that it *is* “creative non-fiction”.

          I’m a bit puzzled (could be me just being thick) as to what you mean about this shutting down avenues of interpretation… ? What avenues are there? Do you think it is too self-pitying and that we should feel sorry for her parents? her husband? Or do you mean something else?

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          • No that’s kind of my point – there’s no way to feel about this book other than “my god, how horrible”. It’s intense and effective, but if that’s all there is to feel about a book, it doesn’t feel like a particularly rich reading experience to me.

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          • Ah, I get what you’re saying now. Mind you, it made me think a lot about her husband — he was clearly mentally ill — and it also made me think about her parents too. I mean, what parents would refuse to help their child on the basis that they would lose face?? It made me cogitate a lot of Indian culture, that ingrained idea that women MUST be married off regardless of their own personal happiness.

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          • Good point – internalised misogyny and the valorisation of marriage above all else is so insidious, and perhaps if the book helps people to see the ways in which society as a whole perpetuates that (even British society, where older folks I know are now asking me with some regularity why I don’t have a boyfriend/when I’m going to get married), it’s done its job.

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  4. I thought it was a brilliant work of art and therapy that happens to be a book, I think it’s a deserving winner, and yet almost shouldn’t be judged, I think it’s a mark of solidarity to all those women out there, suffering under the control of men. A quick glance at those shocking statistics in the interview with The Wire show just how prolific the issue if domestic violence us in India, as it no doubt is in many country’s.
    I hope it wins and more people really and talk about it and find way to support women and children at risk.

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    • Agree. This is a powerful work because it gives a voice to those not in a position to speak out (or even escape their abusive marriages). I think this is a clear example of how even the most educated of women can be the victims of domestic violence.

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  5. You’ve convinced me to put this book on my list. I didn’t know before that it’s based on her own experiences – terrible for her, but probably good for the book! Thanks for the link to the interview.

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    • It’s an interesting — and hard-hitting book. I hadn’t realised it was based on her own personal experience either. I was so shocked when I found out. But I rather suspect that because it’s based in truth it’s more impactful — and authentic. The story she has to tell is horrific.

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