The novels that have been interesting me most this year have been those by writers who have used structure to inform their narrative. Meena Kandasamy’s third novel Exquisite Cadavers does just that.
The Paris surrealist writers coined the phrase ‘exquisite corpses’ to refer to a writing game of ‘Consequences’ where a narrative is assembled by the writings of each participant in turn.
Playing on this technique, Kandasamy divides each page of this short novella in two. One side explores the main story of a young London couple, Maya and Karim. A journalist and a filmmaker, they are British and Tunisian respectively and bicker, argue and worry about their future, all while dealing with the undercurrent of racism that impacts on their daily lives. Situated only in their flat, the narrative is a spotlight on a relationship, with all its flaws.
The second side, in smaller font, contains footnotes by Kandasamy, which relate to her own life, thoughts (increasingly on the violence in her home country of India) and inspirations as she writes Maya and Karim’s story. In this way, equal importance is given to the narrative and to the writer’s process. There is no way to know how best the book should be read – simultaneously, or one part following the other? I read it in a mixture of both, sometimes reading a short chapter of Maya and Karim’s story before going back to read the author’s notes, at other times flitting back and forth between the two. It sounds confusing – and it can be – but it creates its own sense of flow as the author’s notes begin to influence the narrative.
Kandasamy wrote the book as a response to the critical reception given to her previous novel When I Hit You. She was disappointed that many reviewers insisted on calling that book a memoir, given her own well-documented experience of domestic abuse. Exquisite Cadavers aims to lay bare the process involved in writing in order to highlight the artifice of fiction and it is, for the most part, successful in that aim.
As it stands, Maya and Karim’s story is slight, given that it is only half of these 100 pages. They work, watch many films, discuss their bad relationships with their fathers and meet with well-meaning but often unsubtle friends.
Occasionally, love is a realization of porosity. Learning how much hurt she could feel when he was being slighted. Knowing who in her social circle enjoyed his company for the film-talk and who enjoyed the idea of having a curiosity at their sunny brunch table.
Love manifests in her blank smiles when he pretends to ignore insinuations. It manifests in her nervous laughter when he makes racist jokes about his people, at his expense, in the dire hope that her friends would feel more comfortable.
Their story is given weight by the annotations. As Karim talks about how he ‘learns more about his wife from watching her watch a screen’, Kandasamy notes how her first husband would watch the same three films on endless repeat. Her own experience of moving to London and starting a family with a British man leads her to make decisions about her characters.
If I make my heroine an ultra-left groupie like me, this book would be full of such witty raparee. But then, only a few would get all the jokes. No one would care what happens to someone with such an obscure universe of interest…So I give Maya everyday concerns. I make her relatable to British readers. I steal a bit of every Englishwoman I see to build this composite. Amy Sarah Claire Naomi Gill Lucy Allison and god yes god Kate.
Feeling like she cannot relate to her female character, Kandasamy decides to make her pregnant, as she is at the time of writing. After wondering why she keeps her characters in a scene of homely comforts, Kandasamy injects drama into their story when Karim leaves suddenly for Tunisia following the disappearance of his brother, echoing Kandasamy’s stories of her own friends who have been imprisoned or killed in India.
By structuring her novel in this manner, Kandasamy explores the complex connections between a piece of art and the context within which is it created. It is a brave and interesting experiment. Maya and Karim’s story can feel elusive at times, but the skill of Kandasamy’s project is to show both how fiction and memoir and separate entities and how lived experience influences a work.
In Exquisite Cadavers, the reader is treated to a glimpse into the writing process and gifted a window into the mystery of literary creation.
Book 15 of #20booksofsummer20
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!