This is a book that felt so thrillingly alive and teeming with ideas that I frequently copied down quotes while I was reading it. Meena Kandasamy writes about a young woman reflecting on the atrociously abusive marriage that she lived through. Her narrative is very analytical as it artfully poses statements with challenging concepts and ideas about why abuse occurs, why the abused feel pressured to remain in that relationship and the challenges of extracting oneself from that relationship, but at the same time it is so heartfelt and meaningful that I felt totally drawn in and emotionally connected to this woman. Her story is very particular and beyond all theoretical commonalities she asserts “Abstractions are easy, but my story, like every woman's story, is something else.” She marries her husband and moves to Mangalore where he works as a professor heavily involved in the Communist revolutionary movement and gradually he cuts her off from her friends, family and livelihood to the point where she's totally isolated. This isn't just a novel that honestly explores how someone gets drawn into an abusive relationship, but also the way familial and social reactions to that abuse can inhibit abused people from sharing the reality of their situations. The story traces this unnamed narrator's journey from the start of her marriage to the gruelling aftermath as she navigates the world having confessed the brutality she endured within her marriage.
The narrator is a highly educated and capable woman so a common reaction to her situation is: shouldn't a woman this smart know better than to be caught in an abusive relationship? She's well-versed in feminist theory and sociological ideas. It's a common assumption that abuse only occurs amongst the poor and under-educated. The development of her relationship is complicated, but part of what draws her to her husband is an intellectual reverence: “I fell in love with the man I married because when he spoke about the revolution it seemed more intense than any poetry, more moving than any beauty. I'm no longer convinced.” He's an influential figure within a social and political movement that is larger than himself. Although the title of this novel is a play on James Joyce's famous novel that traces his alter-ego's intellectual and religious development, it felt in some ways that “When I Hit You” also connects with George Eliot's “Middlemarch”. Dorothea's attraction to what she believes is a cerebral excellence in the boorish Mr Casaubon seems to mirror Kandasamy's protagonist in some ways, but it also makes me think so much about Susan Sontag. Sontag once wrote about how she married an older professor and it wasn't until she read “Middlemarch” that she realised she had fallen into the same trap as Dorothea. The attraction towards a perceived intellectual superiority is very powerful for some people and it's often not until the seduced spends a lot of time with this “brilliant” person that they realise that person is actually full of hot air.
One of the most heartbreaking things about reading this novel is tracing the way the narrator loses confidence in herself as her relationship devolves into one of rancorous abuse. Her husband plays upon this by undermining her and cutting her off from her lifelines (making her delete her email history, quit FaceBook, taking her phone away, cutting her off from all professional and personal contacts.) He criticises her conduct and body to the point where she tragically states “I learn to criticise myself for who I am.” With her self confidence and self worth shattered she becomes wholly reliant upon economically and psychologically. The incremental introduction of physical and sexual abuse into the relationship builds and develops a special kind of terror where “The use of force is always to signal the impending threat of greater force.” Adding to this the majority of her Indian community and her parents make her feel like the guilty one in this relationship. Even when she admits to her parents that she is being hit she's encouraged to be patient and her father frighteningly speculates “These problems will cease to exist when you have children.” All these things contribute to her remaining within this horrific marriage despite it clearly being a poisonous situation.
Leaving her abusive relationship is especially hard because she observes how “Sometimes the shame is not the beatings, not the rape. The shaming is in the being asked to stand to judgement.” Once the narrator actually extracts herself from the marriage she becomes very cognizant of the dialogue and judgement placed upon her as both a victim and participant in her marriage. It's interesting how Kandasamy points at how this is indicative of latent sexism that exists in our communities which should support women in perilous situations like this. She states how “The post-mortem analysis of my marriage reveals more about people and their prejudices than anything about me or my husband.” Reading this novel made me think about how abusive relationships are much more complex than they outwardly appear and the contributing factors to their continuation are far more insidious than most people would assume. I also particularly like how each section begins with quotes from different women writers and the way she analyses situations shows how she is in dialogue with these women's ideas. “When I Hit You” is incredibly revealing not just in the way it shows how abuse occurs within the privacy of home, but in the way our society reacts to it.