The key question about Exquisite Cadavers, however, is does all of this work? Does it show, as Kandasamy quotes Derrida saying, that “literature is the most interesting thing in the world, maybe more interesting than the world”? That is the hardest question to answer, because the terms are that it should be an experiment – there has never been a book quite like this. Better to ask, then, whether it surprises, grips, makes the reader take notice – all those things literature is supposed to do – to which the answer is, easily, yes, yes, and yes again.
Exquisite Cadavers is deeply lyrical, with space given for thoughts to build. Written in the omniscient third person, the main narrative flips between Maya and Karim’s perspective. Kandasamy zooms in, focusing on their dynamic rather than action. Karim is too fixed, Maya too malleable. Film tropes recur: Karim seeing through a filmic lens, Maya judging her life through films. With the writer present on the page, every choice feels driven. The result is an exploration of how discrimination can pull and pick at intimacy. Kandasamy’s presence only enhances the fiction; her sense of life and art introducing a never-ending conversation between writer, text and reader.
Their narrative acquires weight from the annotations, which document Kandasamy’s struggle watching political events from afar, seeing friends killed and arrested. She grew up in Tamil Nadu and became a leftwing activist, but now lives in London. Kandasamy worries about absenting herself from the fight and the inadequacy of fiction: “My concerns and my solidarity align with the oppressed and the exploited. And yet, creating art under capitalism, I sit here, playing with form, with format, with fonts.” She craves the “refuge” fiction can provide, but recognises the need to bear witness to reality.