Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 and the Jhalak Prize, When I Hit You; Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy is one of the most powerful novels I have read this year.
As the title suggests, this story is that of a young writer’s exposure to domestic violence. That violence manifests itself in both emotional and physical abuse. The story is told quietly with an overarching tension which pulls the reader in and doesn’t let go until the very end.
Marriage became a Re-education camp.
The story is not a blow by blow account of each vitriolic comment, punch or kick and for this reason Kandasamy skilfully navigates the reader through the build up of abuse from the removal of social media presence, the confiscation of a mobile phone, the physical beatings and eventually rape. This journey, for me, was delicate – meditative almost – which allowed me to empathise with the narrator without feeling desensitised.
The narrator, an intelligent and once independent woman, can see what her husband is doing. Every part of her wants to run away questioning how she ever ended up in such a toxic relationship however, the pull of guilt in letting her family down from walking away from such a short marriage makes her stay. She finds inventive ways to endure the abuse from putting on the façade of an actress to becoming silent and still.
I am the wife playing the role of an actress playing out the role of a dutiful wife watching my husband pretend to be the hero of the everyday. I play the role with flair…My life depends on it.
She considers her past loves and why, at the time, she considered them ill suited to her in a chronological order – not by reference to time but by reference to the first letters of their names:
A is B is C is D is E is F is G is H is I and J is K is L is M is N is O is P is Q and R is T is V is W is some X-Y-Z…The rest, as they say, is the unrest of this story.
She begins to write letters to a fictional lover just so she can remember how to feel and how to write. Throughout her ordeal, she never, ever, forgets that she is a writer and that is what makes this book so special and unique.
Writing and language feature as a wonderful underlying theme throughout the novel and, for me, it was perhaps the most impressive part of the book. Kandasamy’s reflections on the ‘Politeness Phenomenon‘ inability to see a cry for help in the everyday back and forth was a highlight for me. I read that passage a number of times. With a nod to other female writers who have written about violence in each epigraph before each chapter – this books demands to be read not just for its urgent message around domestic violence but rather for the way in which the message is delivered.
Many have made the comparison with Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, another shortlisted novel for the Women’s Prize in 2017. Whilst both discuss the subject matter of domestic abuse, for me, the comparison stops there. I didn’t really enjoy First Love for the very reason I really enjoyed When I Hit You. The former was loud, uncomfortable and at times I became detached from the story as a result of the narrative. When I Hit You with its subtle narration pulled me in deeper and kept me engaged right to the very end.
This is the second novel from Kandasamy and such is the power of this that I will have to revert to the first and see how it compares. I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has read her first book, The Gypsy Goddess (comment below if you have!).
Is it your winner of the Women’s Prize?