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

When I arrived to England more than 4 months ago I only had two books with me, both of them in Spanish, and both of them intended to keep me company while travelling. But once I settled down I realised that my recent move was the perfect opportunity to request books to publishers that could not afford to send me their books all the way to Spain. So, seeing that everyone was showing off their new review copies of Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, I wrote to Atlantic Books for a review copy. I soon got a reply from Sophie Walker kindly informing me that they were not publishing that book in the UK, but they had many others that may be of interest to me. As I browsed their fantastic catalogue I found three books that I had to read: Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers, Nocturnal Animals by Austin Wright, and When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy. Sophie was amazing, and upon knowing of my recent move kindly offered to send me copies of the three books. I have to say that I did not feel home until I those threen novels reached me. So, thanks Sophie and Atlantic Books for being so awesome.

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is Meena Kandasamy’s second novel, following the critically acclaimed The Gypsy Goddess (2014), and it has taken the UK by storm with is crude and realistic description of domestic violence. The unnamed narrator of the novel tells her story in first person as she marries an educated and socially respected man who hits her, rapes her, and causes her all kinds of pain, damage, and vexation behind closed doors. The power of this novel resides on its challenging of myths and prejudices about domestic violence by portraying the abuse in a young, educated, and successful couple in contemporary India. He is a university professor, a Communist who has a personal crusade against all the evils of this world, especially his wife. She is 26, an only child, and a writer. Together, they look like the perfect, liberal couple ready to take the world by storm, except that like all abusers, he makes sure his wife stays home under false pretences and excuses. The fact that he is a university professor allows him to justify his abuse with all kinds of postcolonial and postmodern theories that at the same time work as an education for his wife:

When I hear ‘your own good’ I am reduced to being a child again. I do not argue any more. I go silent.

The abuser’s arguments belong to that side of left-wing politics that refuse to acknowledge the patriarchy, and the subjection of women in contemporary society. Feminism is not a valid discourse, and feminists are portrayed as difficult women who are making up problems that get in the way of the real, left-wing (masculine) fight. As part of their strategy, these discourses look to ridicule women while erasing any role models, or artistic representations that may validate female lived experience. As part of this power play, the narrator explores Althusser’s strangling of this wife, and his consequent explanation of the act. Meanwhile, female authors and artists are constantly devalued by her husband, receiving the same treatment society and history has saved for them in the past centuries:

I see, it is no longer fashionable to be mad. Depression is the word, isn’t it? Three inches of cleavage, two books of poetry, plenty of sex and depression – that’s all it takes to make a woman a famous writer. Beginning from Sylvia Plath to Kmala Das, that is the only trajectory you have all followed.

Kandasamy is not shy in the portrayal of domestic violence, but she does not let her prose fall prey to voyeurism. Just as domestic violence victims systematically accept the escalation of abuse, so does the narrator and author, hence allowing for a masterful description of attacks like the following:

My hair is gathered up in a bunch in his hand now. He is lifting me by my hair alone. All the blood is rushing to my head, my thighs fight to feel the hard wood of the chair. I am in pain. He drags me from the table and into the bedroom.

What comes next is marital rape, a crime that until very recently had not been recognised as such in many states (Spain one of them). And afterwards come days and months of abuse, and the narrator’s mixed feelings about it. She knows that she is worth more than an abusive husband, she has the education to recognise what is happening to her. She is a feminist. She is an author. She is extremely clever. But that does not save her, or any woman, from becoming a domestic violence victim. Her family also knows, but they insist on her staying in a marriage that turned violent just one month after the wedding for fear of being judged. Kandasamy offers a magnificent portrayal of contemporary Indian society as a troublesome space, where traditions and new ways of seeing life are crashing, exactly the same way they are doing in the West, especially regarding gender issues:

Tradition never goes out of fashion. Remaining in public memory, it wears new clothes. In India, a bride is burnt every ninety minutes. The time it takes to fix a quick dinner. The time it takes to do the dishes. The time it takes to commute to work. This is the official statistic – the deaths the police do not even bother trying to hide in semantics. The real truth lies int he wailing that never ceases at the burns wards of hospitals.

We learn in the very first chapter of the book that the narrator’s story has a happy ending, at least as happy as expected in these circumstances. The novel is her take on events that seem to be fluid and plastic depending on the ideology of the narrator. Authorship, as she highlights, is something that should be taken very seriously. Domestic violence is not something that happens to uneducated, poor women. It is part of the patriarchy, it can happen to all and any of us. It can alienate us from society, even from our beloved ones.  It is ignored, dismissed, hidden, covered, and even justified. It is terrorism potentially targeting half of humankind, making all women potential victims, no matter their age, nationality, race, religion, ethnic background, education, or body. It can happen to me. Or to you. And that is why When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife will be the most important book published in 2017.

The amazing Naomi Frisby from The Writes of Woman recently interviewed Kandasamy for her Youtube Channel. Enjoy!

 

meena.jpgMeena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist who lives in Chennai and London. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch and Ms. Militancy, and the critically acclaimed novel, The Gypsy Goddess. She holds a PhD in sociolinguistics, and her academic interests include critical pedagogy and linguistic nationalism.

You can learn more about her here.

When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife has been longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize. You can vote for it here, by writing a review slightly over 100 words about TWO books, each by a different publishers, from the 150 The Guardian has selected.

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman has been on my radar ever since it was published in May 2016. I did not get a review copy back then but as bookish magic goes, I found the book at Bristol Public Library. This was the last book that I borrowed during my visit to England, and it was the cherry on top.

IMG_2105

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman focuses on the friendship between two girls in a small American town. Following the necessary tend started by Megan Abbott, Wasserman goes against popular believes of young girls as shallow creatures and reminds readers that girlhood can be the perfect foundation for a crime story.

After the suicide of the town’s Golden boy, Hannah finds herself becoming friends with Lacey, the town’s recently arrived girl. Lacey is nothing like Hannah: She worships Kurt Cobain, wears flannel shirts, smokes, and has no respect for her mother. For Hannah, Lacey represents everything she is not, and something that she could be, as she knows that her chunky body and her thin hair will never compare to Nikki’s, the town’s Golden Girl and girlfriend in grieving. As Hannah and Lacey’s relationship develops, Wasserman explores how social discourses emerge as tools of oppression for girls, who in their transition from childhood to adulthood suddenly find themselves subjected to the patriarchy. Not only that, but Wasserman makes her characters reflect on how gender inequalities prominently appear during the teenage years:

What it would be like to be one of them. To have power, to be seen, be heard, be dudes rather than sluts, be jocks or geeks or bros or nice guys or boys-will-be-boys or whatever we wanted instead of quantum leaping between good girl and whore. To be the default, not the exception. To be in control, to seize control, simply because we happened to have a dick.

The relationship between Hannah and Lacey offers both girls the opportunity to explore different identities focusing on fluidity rather than labels and impositions. Even though there is clearly a power relationship with Lacey in control, Hannah slowly finds a voice that is not mainstream and pre-fabricated for her. The setting of the story in the early 1990’s also allows for the inclusion of popular references, such as the importance of Cobain’s imperfect aesthetic and lifestyle (and Courtney Love’s demonization), granting the girls permission to experiment and be different. And even though I was just a kid back then, I could smell the perfect mix of tobacco, Calvin Klein perfume, while hearing Cobain’s voice in the background.

But Wasserman’s novel goes beyond girlhood and explores the complex mother-daughter relationship and the forgotten fact that mothers have been daughters, teenagers, and girls themselves. Lacey’s and Hannah’s mothers act as vessels for failed stories about motherhood, and even though they try their best they are not always the best of mothers to their daughters. Hannah’s secretly wonders how she produced such a vanilla girl, and Lacey’s still looking for the approval of the men in her life. Both women give readers glimpses into the task of raising girls, and how patriarchal discourses try to put distance between mothers and daughters, when there is more to bring us together than apart.

Girls on Fire is also a crime novel, but like Abbott’s works it is not a procedural, nor does it focus solely on the crime. The 1990’s setting opens up a discussion about the decade’s obsession with satanic cults, the demonization of Grunge, and the emergence of the heroin-chic, criticised and admired at the same time. The real crime though, you will have to find by reading this 5-star novel by yourself.

Quieter than Killing (Marnie Rome #4) by Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary is back with another instalment in the acclaimed Marnie Rome series. If you have followed this blog for some time, you will know that I am a great fan of the series, but also of Sarah, who I met at CrimeFest15 and who is always open to discuss feminism, and women’s crime fiction with me. No wonder she is an active member of Killer Women, a wonderful organisation that aims to bring together women in crime fiction. Now that I live in England, I was lucky to borrow her latest book from the Public Library (more on my love for British public libraries soon).

Quieter than Killing by Sarah Hilary

Quieter than Killing take places nine months after [NAME OF PREVIOUS BOOK], with a cold English winter making things even more difficult for Marine and her team. This time, they are investigating a series of attack on random people in London. As they struggle to make the connections between the victims – different genders, different ages, different social classes – they come up with a theory: There’s a vigilante on the loose. Their approach to the crimes is not welcomed by DC Ferguson, the new glamorous DC that has come to temporarily replace Welland. As Marnie faces life without the unconditional support of her beloved boss, Noah worries about his little brother Sol, who has been missing for days, and the strange texts that someone following Dan, his boyfriend is texting him.

As usual, Hilary is a mastermind at mixing the main characters’ lives with their professional duties. The delicate balance and interweaving between private and professional has always been a trademark of the series, but the author has overdone herself in the fourth book in the series as Sol’s presence, and becomes more crucial in the crime narrative. Stephen, Marnie’s younger adopted brother and the killer of their parents makes an appearance as a secondary character after his main role in the previous book, and as he lets chaos unravel, Marnie wonders if everything was a game for him, and whether there might be some true to his words.

Walking is the repeated act of saving yourself from falling. Where had she read that? In one of those books Lexie, her therapist, gifted to her six years ago. Moving forward was momentum, you just had to keep doing it.

Back to the case, if the Marnie Rome series are known for their pace, Quieter than Killing is the perfect example of a page-turner. I loved the previous books, but I only gave them 4 star reviews at Goodreads. However, I read the latest in the series in less than 3 sittings and I found myself constant needing to return to the book, even after long days reading and writing for work. I was never bored, as the case and the characters picked my interest in many ways. Hilary keeps her trademark narrative device of including the victims’ perspective throughout the novel, but this time she also introduced two secondary female characters: DC Ferguson and professional mediator Zoe Marshall. Lorna Ferguson is a middle-aged woman who dresses sharply, owns a gold-rose MacBook, and works long hours at the precinct in Louboutins. Zoe Marshall is younger, and works with children involved in local gangs, and her aesthetics will appeal to the novel’s younger readers. It is thanks to them that the latest Marnie Rome will connect with a wider audience, but also with anyone looking for better representation of women in contemporary crime fiction.

At this year’s CrimeFest, Hilary confessed that she already knows how book 6 in the series will begin, which will make her readers write angry emails to her of the likes of ‘HOW DARE YOU’. It is not wonder the author is thinking ahead, as the Marnie Rome series are enjoying one of the healthiest, most steady-fast evolutions in contemporary crime fiction written by a woman. Serial crime fiction at its best.

More reviews:

More on Sarah Hilary:

How to be Both by Ali Smith

How to be Both by Ali Smith became an instant success after its publication 2014. Back then all I could see on my Twitter feeds was praise for an author that I had never Heard about. So, after seeing that her latest book Autumn has also been welcomed with equal enthusiast for people I trust, I decided to finally read How to be Both. I borrowed this book from the Bristol Central Library.

“Cause nobody’s the slightest idea who we are, or who we were”.

How to be Both is a novel about fluidity and ambiguity. As the title suggests, a constant theme in both parts of the book is the characters’ ability to evade categories set by society and construct their identity all by themselves. Liminality, those spaces that are both and none at the same time, becomes key for George, an English teenager that has recently lost her mother, and Francescho, a Renaissance artist struggling to become a well-known painter.

The novel is all play, a game between Smith and the reader that will fascinate and surprise in equal measure. The book is divided in two halves, each of them dedicated to a different character. As a metaphysical experiment, there are two version of the book: One that present’s George story first, and another one that presents Francescho’s story first. No matter which, a quick look at Goodreads shows that readers prefer the first half no matter the edition they had. Not happy with this game, Smith also plays the reader for some pages until we discover that George is actually a young girl who is facing the rest of her life with her mother while trying to figure out who she is. As she explores sexual identity, female desire, and growing up, George presents us with a portrait of her mother as an inspiring woman obsessed with creativity and art. So much so, that she visits the same painting so often, George feels the need to visit too after her death.

That painting is no other than Francescho’s. But again, things are not what they seem, and Francescho is a young woman in disguise trying to become a painter in Renaissance Italy. Hidden under big clothes and a lot of banding is the body of a woman that defies social conventions and belongs to another time. As her male friends take her to brothels and her secret is discovered by the city’s prostitutes, she also discovers her sexuality letting her desire roam free in exchange for a drawing. It is in Francecho’s experience that Smith finally gets to fully develop the theme of ambiguity presenting the reader with very interesting questions about identity, how society plays an enormous role in how we define ourselves and the freedom that comes from liminality, ambiguity and letting yourself remain unlabeled while trying to experience life to the fullest.

“It was all : it was nothing : it was more than enough”

How to be Both is my first Ali Smith but it will not be the last. Reading such a complex work could be considered a difficult and daunting task, but Smith’s prose is so beautiful and perfectly constructed that reading just flows. I read this book while I was writing and editing, and I found myself constantly thinking about the story, and pulled to the book every night, no matter the hour.

Interview with Paula Hawkins for Crime Fiction Association

As many of you now know I am also a freelancer writer and an organiser for the Captivating Criminality 4 conference, an annual event organised by the Crime Fiction Association. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview writer Paula Hawkins (The Girl on the Train) yet again for the Association’s blog and we discussed women, crime, and her latest novel Into the Water. To read the interview, click here.

Into The Water by Paula Hawkins

When I first read that Paula Hawkins had a new novel coming out this year I freaked out. As you recall I loved The Girl on the Train, and I was immediately smitten with Hawkins on her first interview here as soon as she expressed her views on women and crime fiction. You can revisit the interview here. So, when I saw pictures of her new novel Into The Water to be published on the 2nd of May, I knew I had to get my hands on one. I also knew I would love it (spoiler alert: I was right!). Thanks to Paula and to Alison Barrow’s team for sending me one.

Into The Water by Paula Hawkins

‘Nel Abbott is dead’, she said.

‘They found her in the water.’

‘She jumped,’

Into the Water starts with the death of Nel Abbott in a small town in England. But she is not the protagonist of the story, as her identity is reconstructed throughout the novel by her estranged sister Jules who sees her return to their hometown to take her of Nel’s daughter Lena as her late sister’s last and darkest joke. However, Jules’ is not the only voice in the book. As it happened with The Girl on the Train, Hawkins creates a story from different points of view playing with the readers’ perception of the characters. If Rachel was a divorcee and an alcoholic, Nel is a hippie, an artist, a beautiful unmarried woman who leads a tranquil life with her daughter. Or isn’t she? Playing with social and gender prejudices, Hawkins makes the reader face long-held beliefs about women, knowledge and body issues. The background of Nel’s life is plagued by her obsession with the Drowning Pool, an enchanted part of the local river in which witch trials and sacrifices took place, holing a special attraction to the women of the town ever since.

With the reminiscence of witchery trials and the secret behind women’s knowledge in a 21st century story, Hawkins is brining back the social construction of women’s knowledge, as well as the sometimes trickery action of being defined by prejudices in a small town. Nel’s life constructs her as liminal in the white, middle-class and familiar environment of her hometown. Her beauty is considered dangerous. Her daughter is said to be following her steps. And the bond between them is strange to even the closest pair of mothers and daughters. And above all, she is obsessed with the Drowning Pool and the women who died there. So much so, that she is writing a book about them. A collective biography that aims to bring together the life and death of the women that jumped into the water, partially reproduced thanks to Jules in the book. Hence when Nel’s body is found in said drowning pool no one thinks twice about it, except her daughter. Was Nel the kind of woman who would jump? Who was Nel Abbott?

Like good English crime fiction, Into the Water is a crime novel and a character study. Like a Paula Hawkins book, the story forces readers to question the social construction of each of the characters’ identities, as well as their own definition of self. Confronted with the death of her sister, Jules sees herself become legal guardian to Nel’s daughter. But why were the Abbott sisters estranged in the first place? Lena is faced with her mother’s apparent suicide, but also with her best friend’s. What did the two women have in common? Detective Sean Townsend has seen enough death in the Drowning Pool of recently, will he able to solve the crime? These are only three of the several characters that construct the narrative and that faithfully reproduce the power of the community in the social construction of narratives.

I enjoyed The Girl on the Train a lot and I thought that from a feminist perspective the book has done a lot to question women’s representation in crime fiction. But Into The Water is even better, as Hawkins directly addresses the historical persecution of women’s knowledge and the agency that stemmed from it. However, those issues could easily become secondary for the general crime fiction reader, who will find a complex page-turner with a shocking ending. Totally recommended to all my readers here.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud had been on my radar for a long time. So much so that when I decided to do some second-hand bookshop in Cardiff last year I knew I would buy a copy of the book if I found it. For those of you who kept recommending the book to me: Thank You.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs tells the story of Nora Eldridge, a middle-aged teacher who sees her conventional American class and life disrupted with the arrival of a new pupil from France. Nora describes herself in the first lines of the book as ‘a good girl’, and that is probably the description that best fits her until the following question is posted: What makes a good girl and why? In this first chapter we learn about her anger and her frustration with her life. If she has been a good daughter, a good colleague, and a good woman in general, why did this happen to her? Of course ‘this’ is the whole of the book. Messud is a master at describing psychological processes, and the novel focuses on Nora’s internal life and her evolution. But before we learn more about the year the incident that changed her life forever, she graces us with one of the most intense, truthful and brief takes on anger expressed by a female character in contemporary literature:

Maybe, instead, I’ll set the world on fire. I just might.

This anger floods her story like a hemorrhage she cannot stop when she reconstructs what happened between her and the student’s family. Because I do not wish to spoil the novel to anyone, I will leave it here, and instead I will focus on why so many people have considered Nora a unlikable character. For me she was a heroine, but I am the one who takes Rebecca’s side on the Du Maurier classic. As a female character, Nora uses the narration in first person to vent her anger and her frustrations, and she directly links her situation to the fact that she is a woman and has been socialized to be quiet, silent, kind, show acceptance, and care for others. But above all, she highlights how society teaches women to repress negative feelings, and most importantly to not show the in public:

Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish.

Despite the importance of these feelings, Messud gives Nora a rich internal life, and her ambitions to be an artist also play a key role in the narrative. Even though she earns her living as a teacher, Nora has always wanted to be an artist but saw her will and determination crashed by society and her environment. Sadly this is a too common situation for many women even nowadays, and the fact that Messud chose to write about it may give help female readers give a second chance to the dreams of their youth. Nora’s self-rediscovery is one of the most beautiful and inspiring processes I have seen portrayed in literature, and it stands along with the library scene in Atonement, which two years later still lingers in my mind.

It has been over a month since I finished The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, but I fiercely miss Nora. Every day I look at my piles of books trying to find something that will make up for the loss, but I am afraid I will not find anything until Messud’s next book comes out this year. Even though reading The Woman Upstairs l may take a while due to the intensity of the story, Nora will remain with readers as one of the most complex, fierce, brave, inspiring and flawed characters in contemporary literature. For me this is probably the best book I have read this year so far.