Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Meena Kandasamy, Publisher, Setting

‘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.

Anita Shreve, Book review, Fiction, general, Little, Brown, USA

‘The Stars are Fire’ by Anita Shreve

The stars are fire by Anita Shreve

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown; 256 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

The Stars Are Fire is typical Anita Shreve fare: a simple story about a woman trapped by circumstance and societal expectations who must find a way to seek happiness against the odds.

This might sound clichéd or even naff, but in Shreve’s capable hands it’s not, for Shreve is a terrific storyteller and this novel — her 19th — features all the things I love about her work: strong female characters traversing moral minefields and all told in a fast-paced, economical yet elegant prose style.

Summer fire risk

The story is set on the coast of Maine in 1947 during an unusually hot summer. Grace Holland is married to a quantity surveyor, Gene, with whom she has a troubled relationship: his brooding silences and bullying bedtime practices make her desperately unhappy, but what is she to do? The sexual revolution hasn’t happened yet, she has two young children and a third on the way, and she’s never worked outside the home so is entirely reliant on her husband for financial support.

When wildfires break out further along the coast, Gene heads off to help fight them with his colleagues. But when the wind unexpectedly changes and sweeps the fire back towards the Holland’s neighbourhood, Grace finds herself in mortal danger. Grabbing the children, she flees to the beach, where they spend the night buried in the sand to protect themselves from the deadly flames.

This is where the story takes a tragic turn: the Holland’s house is wiped out in the fire, Grace loses her unborn baby and Gene never returns, but whether he has died in the fire or taken the opportunity to do a runner isn’t clear.

Dramatic story

Okay, so this all sounds rather dramatic, doesn’t it? Domestic abuse. Tick. A community tragedy. Tick. A missing husband. Tick. A dead baby. Tick. A home burned to the ground. Tick.

And things for Grace and her children get far worse before they get better.

But the story isn’t without hope, because over the next few months Grace painstakingly builds a new life for herself without her husband’s support. She learns to drive a car, lands herself a new job and finds herself falling in love with a new man.

Yet Grace’s new-found happiness is tested to the limit in many different ways  and it’s when she least expects it that it threatens to come crumbling down around her feet.

Superb storytelling

As ever, Shreve’s storytelling is on fire in this book (pun fully intended). The narrative burns with a fierce intensity (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and all the characters, including Grace’s bullying husband, are drawn with enormous sympathy.

And while the plot machinations are entirely predictable (if not downright obvious), I found myself swept up in Grace’s life — I was cheering her on even when I knew I was being emotionally manipulated by the quietly sentimental story that unfolds over 250 pages.

The Stars Are Fire — due for publication in the UK on 2 May — probably won’t set your world alight (sorry!), but it is perfect escapist fiction, the kind that mixes suspense with romance, tragedy and human frailty, and keeps you wholly absorbed the entire time you’re reading it. It’s a fine novel, one that is sure to impress existing fans and perhaps garner the author a bevy of new ones.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Patrick McGrath, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Spider’ by Patrick McGrath

Spider

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 221 pages; 1992.

I read Patrick McGrath‘s Spider — first published in 1990 — back-to-back with Nathan Filer’s Shock of the Fall. Both books are about mental illness, but McGrath’s is written in a more eloquent, old-fashioned, literary style, and left a far deeper impression on me. I don’t say this lightly, but it’s perhaps the best book I’ve read all year.

A tale of madness

The Spider of the title is Dennis Cleg, a troubled man who has returned to London from Canada, where he has been living for the past 20 years. He now resides in a half-way house not far from where he grew up in the East End, shortly before the Second World War. He spends his days wandering once-familiar streets and canal ways trying to adjust to a new life outside of the psychiatric hospital from which he’s recently been released.

I went down to the river, to a pebbly strand where as a boy I used to watch the barges and steamers; in those days they ran on coal, and constantly coughed cloudy spumes of black smoke into the sky. You reached the strand at low tide by a set of tarry wooden steps beside an old pub called the Crispin. Down I’d go to sniff around the boats moored there, old battered working boats with smelly tarpaulins spread across their decks, all puddled with rainwater and green with fungus. Often I’d climb onto the deck and creep under a tarpaulin, in among the iron chains and the damp timbers, and settle myself in a tick oily coil of rotting rope — I loved to be alone in that damp gloom with the muted screaming of the gulls outside as the wheeled and flapped over the water.

These childhood haunts bring back many memories for Spider, who furiously records them in a journal, which he is at pains to keep from prying eyes. In it he recalls how his father, a plumber with a violent streak and a fondness for drink, took up with a local prostitute, Hilda, whom he met in the pub. Shortly afterwards, his mother mysteriously “disappeared” and Hilda moved into the family home.

He was a shy, pensive boy, but after his mother “goes to Canada”, he became even more withdrawn. He coped by learning to separate himself into two people —  Spider, who scuttled about and disassociated himself from his grief, and Dennis, who presented a face to the real world.

As he looks back on these traumatic and troubling events, Spider’s narrative gets increasingly more disturbed in tune with his own behaviour, which becomes more erratic, odd and paranoid as he remembers more and more of his past. He wears all his clothes at once, tapes newspaper to his body, hears unexplained noises in the attic above him, frequently smells gas, and hides his few possessions in a sock worn on the inside of his trouser leg.

What results is a psychological thriller of the finest order, perfectly paced and structured, and with a satisfying, if ambiguous (and troubling), denouement.

Atmospheric novel

Without a doubt, McGrath’s second novel is a rather extraordinary achievement. It has so much atmosphere. You really get a feel, not only for that period in London history —  the oppressive fog, the dodgy outhouses, the murky canal, the noise and conviviality of the pub, the dank and seclusion of the allotment garden — but also of Spider’s fear, pain and neglect as a child.

The story is told in the first person entirely from Spider’s point of view, and sometimes it is hard to determine how much of what he tells us is real or a figment of his madness. His account is so vividly drawn, however, and so filled with pain, confusion and a distrust of all those around him that is hard not to immediately take his side, to wish you could walk into the book and make it all better for him.

The prose has such an emotional impact because there’s a complete absence of pity and sentimentality in it.  It becomes even more emotional (and shocking) when you discover the secrets at the heart of Spider’s fragile mental state.

Sadly, Spider appears to be out of print — I bought mine from a charity shop several years ago — but there are plenty of  second-hand copies sloshing around the internet for just a few pence. Alternatively, you could watch the 2003 film adaptation — directed by David Cronenberg based on a screenplay by McGrath — on DVD, which features Ralph Fiennes in the starring role. His performance as Spider is absolutely mesmerising: fragile and powerful, but also deeply disturbing, too — just like the book.