Meena Kandasamy’s second novel When I Hit You was a huge success; shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Jhalak Prize, longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, and acclaimed as a Book of the Year by numerous publications. A work of auto-fiction, it was repeatedly described by reviewers as a memoir. As Kandasamy writes in the preface of Exquisite Cadavers:
…some reviewers were side-stepping the entire artistic edifice on which the work stood, and were instead solely defining me by my experience: raped Indian woman, beaten-up wife. I felt annoyed in the beginning and later angered that as a woman writer I was not even given the autonomy of deciding the genre to which the book I had spent years writing, belonged.
Exquisite Cadavers is Kandasamy’s response. Taking the title from the game of chance, she set out to write an Oulipo style work in which she writes a story about a couple far removed from her own situation and confines herself to the margins.
The main story concerns Karim and Maya, a young couple who live in London. He is a film student whose ideas are constantly being knocked back by the research committee who think he should be creating something around his own identity. She is white-passing and has to deal with microaggressions from her family and colleagues about her marriage. However, the story is centred on their relationship; the way they perceive each other and their roles.
Early on in the marginalia Kandasamy writes If everything goes to plan, there will be no seepage, no bleeding from her own life into those of Karim and Maya. This proves impossible though as concerns about Brexit, the Prevent Strategy, and the fates of Indian activists appear in the fictional narrative.
Part of what’s really interesting about the book is making the links between the two stories; seeing how life is reconstituted in art. Although, technically, Kandasamy fails in her intention to create an entirely separate fictional story, what she does achieve demonstrates to those who failed to recognise the artistry in When I Hit You that events and ideas can be taken and sculpted into something new, something rooted in fiction.
Again, early on in the marginalia Kandasamy says:
No one discusses process with us. [Writers ‘from a place where horrible things happen [… / ] have happened to us’.]
No one discusses our work in the framework of the novel as an evolving form.
No one treats us as writers, only as diarists who survived.
With Exquisite Cadavers Kandasamy has forced that conversation to the forefront through an intriguing and deftly executed piece of work.
Exquisite Cadavers is published by Atlantic Books. Thanks to the publisher for my review copy.