The Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize has become one of my favourite literary awards. It is awarded for the best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under, named for the Swansea-born author, who died aged 39 in 1953, and the winner will receive £30,000! The longlist for this prize is always packed with varied titles, of which I had only read one, the rather wonderful Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodriguez Fowler (reviewed here). I was delighted to be asked to take part in the longlist blog tour, which will cover all twelve books over the next few weeks, (I’ll be doing two titles) leading up to the shortlist announcement in early April. Here’s the longlist in full.
- Surge – Jay Bernard (Chatto & Windus)
- Flèche – Mary Jean Chan (Faber & Faber)
- Exquisite Cadavers – Meena Kandasamy (Atlantic Books)
- Things we say in the Dark – Kirsty Logan (Harvell Secker, Vintage)
- Black Car Burning – Helen Mort (Chatto & Windus)
- Virtuoso– Yelena Moskovich (Serpent’s Tail)
- Inland – Téa Obreht (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
- Stubborn Archivist – Yara Rodrigues Fowler (Fleet)
- If All the World and Love were Young – Stephen Sexton (Penguin Random House)
- The Far Field – Madhuri Vijay (Atlantic Books)
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong (Jonathan Cape, Vintage)
- Lot – Bryan Washington (Atlantic Books)
So here’s my first contribution…
Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy
Kandasamy made headlines with her 2017 novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife which was shortlisted for various prizes and longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. I haven’t read it, but know that its pages reflect upon events that happened in her own life – however Kandasamy asserts that it is a novel, not a memoir, it is crafted as a narrative. Her reaction to that attitude was to create characters that are the opposite of her own experience in Exquisite Cadavers, which she describes as an ‘Oulipo’, from the French school of authors who wrote under a constraint, the title coming from the Paris Surrealists’ game of consequences, where you end up with a sewn-together body when the paper is unfolded, which in turn influenced the cover design by Carmen R. Balit.
Kandasamy puts this concept onto the page to create an experimental novella with two parallel strands, presented in two columns on the page. The main story of a fictional couple living in London is told in vignettes that examine their lives and marriage. The wide margin, a sidebar if you will, presents Kandasamy’s thoughts about her own life and documents and references the influences in the main story – there are definite elements of meta- and auto-fiction here, as well as reportage and comment. The photo below shows a typical spread, so you can see the structure.
As I said, the main story charts the ups and downs of a young couple, Maya and Karim, who are English and Tunisian respectively. Maya works for a liberal newspaper, smokes too much and will be pregnant. She loves to fight – she calls them ‘arguments’ – something Karim is not always willing to participate in, hence there is an edge to their relationship. Naturally, she is hoping that a baby will cement their marriage further, but is not sure she’s ready at the start of the book. A film studies student, Karim is keen to make his mark but suffers from stereotyping, when he makes a sarcastic suggestion that he could make a study of the camel in cinema for his dissertation, it is jumped upon by his tutors who were disappointed it was a joke, as was Karim by their response.
Karim and Maya’s story is told very much in the present, running parallel to the prevailing politics and world events. It is structured in vignettes: there is a narrative arc behind them, but the short sections don’t actively follow on from each other for most of the time. Each section of vignettes is instead linked by a chapter title, in the case above ‘mixed marriages’ and is one of the more political sections, taking in Brexit before moving on to ISIS, Jihadi John and Shamina Begum, as Maya comments on the casual racism of the couple’s everyday life. The following chapter ‘a good man is hard to keep’ is all about what being couple is, and is distinctly poetic in its text; Kandasamy’s poetry skills coming to the fore.
This brings me to Kandasamy’s commentary in the margins. I’ll admit to being slightly confused at first at whether this was meta/auto-fiction, but it is soon clear that this is Kandasamy’s own voice, referencing and documenting each influence, as she says in her introduction. She also challenges the reader to decide whether she was able to ‘confine myself to the margins’. Kandasamy’s comments include discussion from her research, often disturbing, and show a growing political awareness as world events are incorporated into the text.
At first I couldn’t decide how to read this book. Set out as it is, your eye is drawn to the margins even as you read the main text, which meant that I often paused in the middle of one of Maya and Karim’s vignettes to see what Kandasamy was saying about it, when it would have been better to read a whole section of M&K and treating the margins as footnotes, to be caught up on. Or is that a better way to read this striking little book? I’ve always enjoyed a good footnote, especially when they’re well-written, and I’ll admit, I was generally more interested in Kandasamy’s comments than the story of Maya and Karim. The following quote from the margins tickled me, but also it’s good to discover that Kandasamy was willing to identify with her heroine a little (she was pregnant with her second child while writing the book).
So, I give Maya everyday concerns. I make her relatable to the British readers. I steal a little of every Englishwoman I see to build this composite. […] To break the narrative heteronormativity of this text, and to capture a suddenly emergent Europhilia among Remainers, I let her quote Barthes.
I cannot make her me. Then again, I cannot relate to her if I do not share anything with her. So, I end up making her pregnant.
Exquisite Cadavers does make for a fragmented read though, and with only around 90 pages of text, including a fair amount of white space, it took a much longer time to read than I had expected. I read many sections twice to make sense of what narrative drive there is in the book, but also to look up Kandasamy’s own references – from Daniel Farson, a documentary maker who made a TV programme on mixed marriages in 1958, to Richard Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights, then there are Tamil phrases, lists of film titles with the word husband in – and much more, making it an intense and intellectual reading experience. In her margins, she is working out her own responses to Maya and Karim as much as documenting their creation.
Exquisite Cadavers is a fascinating experiment. Underneath it all, the premise of examining a loving relationship put under strain by the world it inhabits is an eternal one, but defined anew by circumstance. It was a stimulating and challenging read, confirming Kandasamy as an author of strong opinions and writing ability.
Source: Review Copy from Midas PR – Thank you.