Earlier this week, author and poet Meena Kandasamy won the Hermann Kesten Prize given by the PEN Centre in Germany's Darmstadt – awarded annually to those who stand up for the rights of persecuted authors and journalists. Her entire body of work is so critical for every modern thinking reader to engage with, that one must not lose any opportunity to talk about it.
Possibly her slimmest work till date, Exquisite Cadavers was written as “a reaction to the reception” her second novel – the Women’s Prize-shortlisted When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife had received. Several critics and readers were quick to categorise her previous novel as a memoir even though Kandasamy had unequivocally written it as “a work of auto-fiction”. Here, she takes to the margins (nonmetaphorically!) and also takes control of her narrative, blurring the lines between fact, fiction, and inspiration but at her discretion.
We are thrown right at the centre of a fragile marriage in London, fraught with tension, at the very onset. We meet Maya, a mixed-race British journalist, and Karim, a Tunisian filmmaker, “animal-hearted African, desert-stranded Arabian”. Race is integral in their world. On nearly every page, alongside Maya and Karim’s story, we learn about the writer and her whereabouts – both external and internal. Like a lucid dream, her subconscious – where she ruminates, excavates, forgives, and ideates – and quotidian experiences bleed into the lives of the fictional couple.
Unsettled in this life of domesticity, Maya and Karim behave like most urban, educated couples do. They argue, follow films and Scandinavian crime shows, discuss careers, but they can’t escape the politics of their time. While on the sidelines the mundane slowly transgresses into the horrific, as Kandasamy records unflinching details of atrocities happening worldwide – from everyday Islamophobia in Britain to crimes against minorities (and humanity as a whole) that are carried out systemically back in her own country.
It’s a darkly humorous, deeply alarming experiment that leaps off the page and isn’t afraid to test the reader or make them uncomfortable, but never loses its sensitive grip on the philosophies it investigates. If art must comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, then this is a work which succeeds on both counts.