When this powerful novel opens the unnamed protagonist has already escaped from her abusive husband so the suspense is not whether she'll survive but whether she'll be allowed to tell her own story. The woman's mother has been telling the story to relatives, neighbours, and circles of friends, focusing on the physical signs of her daughter's abuse and escape: “That criminal had cut my daughter’s hair short, and it was in-fes-ted” while “Her heels were cracked and her soles were 25 shades darker than the rest of her.” But lest those four harrowing months of her life be whittled down to an anecdote, the narrator realizes that she can be the only one to tell us what happened.
Her story leads us through her emotional journey, from confident college student then published writer to “a woman whom no one wants to look at or, more accurately, whom no one even sees”. The journey towards that assertion is a tough one which begins with a stripping of the narrator’s autonomy after her marriage to a university lecturer, Marxist and one-time revolutionary in south India, an educated cultured brute who uses communist ideas “as a cover for his own sadism”.
When she moves with him to an unfamiliar city, an assault on her tongue, mind and body begins. The language barrier ensures that in public she can only speak words of wifely domesticity, shopping for vegetables or cleaning products. Her husband manipulates her into the surrender of her email accounts and the suspension of her Facebook page through emotional and psychological blackmail, for example by singeing himself until she gives in (“If you love me, this is the quickest way you will make up your mind.”)
Beatings and rapes follow, with everyday middle-class implements weaponised: the hose of the washing machine, the power cord for her laptop. Shame, pride and a society in which everyone, from parents to police, expects a woman to put up and shut up force the realisation that, if she wants to come out of it alive, only she can save herself.
However this is not just a story of survival. It is one of self-preservation, and what makes the novel unique is that even as she is beaten down the narrator reflects that every moment of her life has narrative potential and writing can be her salvation. Thus the novel becomes a meditation on the art of writing about desire, abuse and trauma and we are introduced into a “play-within-the-novel”: “Lights, camera, action. Rolling, rolling, role-playing”. The narrator speaks of her life as if she were directing a play and acting her own role in it at the same time: “And cut! I am the wife playing the role of an actress playing out the role of a dutiful wife watching my husband pretend to be the hero of the everyday.” In this double role of director/actor she does not only manage to distance herself from the hell she is experiencing but she also succeeds in regaining control of her life, at first virtually and only partially, through the “play” she makes up (“And what is a writer, if not the one who gets to shape the narrative, to have the last word?”) but later on fully and decisively, when she exceeds her written brief and shows her husband up for what he is: “Don’t tell me how brave you are. A brave man doesn’t run. A brave man doesn’t rape and hit his wife. You, my husband, are not a brave man.”