Sunday 25 February 2018

Tales touch Tolstoy's truth about families

The novels set in Ireland and India suggest a common struggle
The novels set in Ireland and India suggest a common struggle
When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

Anne Cunningham

It could be argued that, as novels, Meena Kandasamy's When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer As a Young Wife (Atlantic €18.99) and Roisin Meaney's The Street Where You Live, (Hachette €17.99) are chalk and cheese. The former is about a young Indian bride trapped in a horrifically violent marriage, the latter about a fifty-something widow trying to muddle through. Kandasamy's book is aimed at the literary fiction market while Meaney's is pitched as commercial fiction. Kandasamy's protagonist is a feisty young writer, poet and political activist; Meaney's is a cleaner, working strictly for cash to bolster her modest widow's pension.

These books are set in different worlds, one in an India of caste systems and myriad social problems, the other in a relatively "grown-up" Ireland, where, it would seem anyway, women have it better. Yet both of these characters have a common struggle. With thousands of miles - physical and cultural - between them, Kandasamy's unnamed heroine is struggling to gain her independence, while Meaney's Molly is struggling to maintain hers. And at the heart of both novels lies that strange but familiar entity of family. The parents of Kandasamy's bride consistently let her down, fearful of the inevitable gossip and scandal should they allow their daughter to come home. Molly's only son robs her of her life savings before taking off to New Zealand, leaving no forwarding address. Both novels bring to mind Tolstoy's opening line in Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Kandasamy's protagonist is a post-grad student who marries a man who fancies himself a political activist. But while the husband's public persona decries inequality, he is an utter conformist in private. They move to Mangalore, far from home, and he insists she become a traditional Tamil housewife. At first she agrees, seeing this as a way to develop her writing. She keeps in touch with friends and family through Facebook. But when he forces her to delete her Facebook account, she knows she's in trouble. Her mobile phone goes next.

At first the husband burns himself with matches until his wife concedes to his whim-du-jour. Just weeks later, she's being beaten or strangled with whatever comes to hand; "…The cord of my MacBook… the back of the broomstick…his brown leather belt… the drain hose of the washing machine…"

Snatched, secret phone calls to her parents for help fall on deaf ears. It is unacceptable for a Tamil woman to leave her husband. She has made her bed, and now… Besides, they tell her, they know how prone to exaggeration she is. Meanwhile, they lie about their daughter's happy marriage. And it is this culture of secrets and lies that Kandasamy challenges so vehemently. Having survived a violent marriage, she gives talks throughout the world about the plight of Indian wives, 40pc of whom, she attests, suffer marital violence. This veil of shame must be removed, she insists, even while examining her own shame in this disturbing but beautifully written novel-cum-memoir.

Meaney's novel features familial heartache. If it's a sweeping epic or grand romance you're after, The Street Where You Live is not for you. If you enjoy character studies peppered with the tiniest detail, this is a real treat. Molly's workload has increased in the five years since her son disappeared with every penny. She toils incessantly, cleaning the homes of the better-offs. She joins a community choir, along with her single stay-at-home daughter, to get out of the house. This choir is a motley crew and showcases Meaney's talent. Her ability to weave stories around a seemingly random cast is simply uncanny. She can wring a story out of a stone. This tale of unremarkable people, living unremarkable lives, brings to mind CS Lewis's line: "We read to know we are not alone." Meaney wraps her readers in the company and comfort of ordinary strangers.

These two disparate novels both prove Tolstoy to be right. In Ireland and in India, we encounter two strong women, troubled families in tow, stumbling through unhappiness with quiet, stoic heroism.

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