By Anna Hill
Content warnings: domestic and sexual violence
When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy is the first book I’ve read from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year (you can see the whole longlist and the newly released shortlist here), and it has certainly set a high standard.
I’ve never read anything from Kandasamy before but after reading this I will be picking up her other works. I originally heard about When I Hit You when it was being talked about last year with its full title When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. I was really drawn to it because women, writing, and survival all interest me. The book has a pretty simple plot; it’s about a young wife leaving her marriage with an abusive leftist man. As a survivor of sexual violence I always struggle to figure out if I want to read things that I know will contain some traumatic experiences similar to my own because I’m searching for other ways to explore, survive, and escape from my own life, or out of a place of self destruction – out of an impulse to consume media that I know will be triggering for me. But the way this novel sets itself up – saying from the beginning that the unnamed main character gets out of her marriage – allowed me to read, and even enjoy, the narrative, and to find a kind of sisterhood within the pages, despite our very different experiences.
The reading experience, far from triggering me, was actually surprising, at points funny, and ultimately hopeful. The tone of the novel was something I was absolutely not expecting: it’s this clear-sighted voice, which at times is poetic and at others has a kind of astute dry humour. In part it was the tone of this novel that allowed me to read it, and to read it as fast as I did. There are these accurate, painfully funny moments scattered throughout the entire novel. The opening can provide some kind of glimpse into the irreverence of the narrator and the way she creates in-jokes between her and the reader; when talking about how her mother retells her escape she notes that, “this is how my story of Young Woman as a Runaway Daughter became, in effect, the great battle of My Mother versus the Head Lice”.
As the subtitle would suggest, this book is not just one about domestic violence, it’s also about the act of writing itself and the way that fiction and stories can help you escape. The narrator thinks during an episode of violence from her husband that “I just have to wait for this to end and I can write again”. The instruments of fiction allow an escape from the abuse which is such a relatable impulse, and a really interesting one. Kandasamy is so eloquent about the way that writing your own story and crafting a narrative is an empowering and sometimes life-saving tool, with the young wife talking about her impulse to survive as her “restless urge to tell a story”. This desperate wish propels her out of the pain, and offers her a balm. When she is writing a poem about the situation she says “the poem is the healing, I tell him. It’s by writing this that I can get over it.”
Another aspect of the book that I wasn’t expecting was the way it ruthlessly presents men on the left’s deep misogyny and “distilled hypocrisy”. The abusive husband at one point writes a poem which articulates the horrendous and almost laughable approach to violence against women that they have:
“When I hit you,
Comrade Lenin weeps.”
Like so many Leftist men he uses left ideologies as “a cover for his own sadism” – always presuming his own integrity is superior, his own violence is called for – “in this marriage in which I’m beaten, he is the poet”. Later on, the novel covers the difficulty in calling out abusive political men and how consistently people ask you to find kind things to say about abusers. When I Hit You exposes some of the ways that the left wing specifically (but also people in general) facilitate and allow domestic and sexual violence against women – and how it refuses to genuinely listen to women alongside feminist critique.
The novel intensely and clearly debunks myths about victim blaming throughout; why and how women stay in abusive relationships, who is vulnerable to abuse, and even how abuse is underplayed and how the outside world (and language itself) refuses to intervene. In my paperback copy of When I Hit You, one of the reviews of the novel is included at the back, and I’d like to end my review by sharing some of it. The review is formatted as a list of people who should read the book and this is part of number three:
“Women who have escaped or those who need to know they have a right to”
This is such a kind book to us. Kandasamy’s affectionate concern for her fellow survivors triumphs over any editorial demands of explicit sensationalism. Trigger warnings are folded in gently at the beginning; I was married to a rapist, he beat me, I left and am living still. This is not the kind of binary story that says the only acceptable survival is escape or death – every tiny rebellion, every pragmatic compromise is documented, meticulously, as the victory it is. Kandasamy understands that winning sometimes looks like just coping.”
In case you do want to read this and you’re a survivor, as this review and the quoted one covers there’s obviously a general warning for the whole book of domestic violence. More specifically (in the paperback version) there is a mention of sexual violence against the narrator as a child on page 60 and intense description of rape from page 163 in depth for about 20 pages. Please do take care and remember that you don’t have to finish the book if you can’t!