Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

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Exquisite Cadavers is fascinating. As Kandasamy reveals in the preface, it’s an experiment – ‘a story where each influence, each linchpin behind every freewheeling plot-turn, would be referenced and documented.’ She reveals she was inspired by surrealism, ‘the title relates to the game of consequences.’ In essence, the piece is two parts – there is the story itself, and then there are the margins, littered with footnotes and ideas and research that Kandasamy has whilst writing. It’s an interesting form, the reasoning driven by reviews for her second novel When I Hit You. Kandasamy drew on her own experiences for the novel, ‘a work of auto-fiction’, yet it was reviewed repeatedly as a memoir. Kandasamy decided to live in the margins and separate her life from the fiction, annoyed that she was not given autonomy over her own work.

To measure an experiment is usually to see where it lies within the realms of success. Does Kandasamy remove herself and give us a story that separates ‘the fictional and the real?’ Not entirely, no. Does it truly matter? Well, not really, to be honest.

The fiction of Exquisite Cadavers lies with Karim and Maya, a London couple, who, as the inner sleeve suggests – share a home, worry about money, binge-watch films and argue all the time. A modern relationship. Yet it’s more than that. Kandasamy is a poet, and it’s in the fiction that it wholly shows. The prose is, at times, gorgeous, written like a movie close up where you have no choice but to directly stare into the intricacies, the inner thoughts, of Karim and Maya’s lives. Sometimes there is little room for the bigger picture.

Karim is a Tunisian filmmaker who is expected to tell specific stories – ‘could you do a documentary on women who wear the hijab?’. There’s a clear connection to the author, who also has been expected to stick to certainties as well. Even Maya isn’t so far removed. In the footnotes Kandasamy reveals, and acknowledges, that she cannot relate to Maya ‘if I do not share anything with her’. Kandasamy decides to make her pregnant, just as she was whilst writing. It isn’t the only instance that Kandasamy’s life seeps into Karim and Maya’s.

Despite the parallels, Exquisite Cadavers is thematically still two pieces. Though maybe it lies in the narrative – one of domesticity, one of moral consciousness. Kandasamy illustrates rape of girls in India in the footnotes; the ways in which those who stand up to injustice are routinely punished, politics and feminism. ‘As all this unfolds around me, I feel conflicted about keeping Maya and Karim in the safe cocoon of domesticity.’ In the end, she doesn’t. The themes intertwine. Karim returns to Tunisia after his brother disappears – higher powers are at hand. Here Kandasamy throws her characters, specifically Maya, a choice. Does Maya stay in London, in the safety of domesticity, or does she follow? Here too, the prose freewheels into questions. How far does she go for love? What’s the worst that could happen? Karim could be arrested, Karim could die. How much can Maya give up for the struggle? Kandasamy does not give us a definite. And considering the circumstances, how could she? There is no answer, anything could happen.

Exquisite Cadavers is unique. The length, 104 pages from preface to the finish, doesn’t allow for expansion. There is far more to Maya and Karim than we will ever know, maybe the piece works better for it, I can’t decide. It’s a joy though, to have Kandasamy there with us, talking through the footnotes as though she’s watching you read, explaining out decisions – pointing at you through the page. It’s a rarity in most writing to see inside the authors mind; what they were doing, watching, listening and feeling as they wrote. It’s certainly a daring choice to make, perhaps going to show that no matter how much you try, you can never truly remove yourself from your fiction. She too, in her endeavour, reclaims control of her own writing.

Exquisite Cadavers is published by Atlantic Books and is available here.

Meena Kandasamy

Meena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist who was born in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch (2006) and Ms. Militancy (2010), and the critically acclaimed novel, Gypsy Goddess. She currently lives in East London.

Reviewed by Emily Harrison

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