Sunday, October 08, 2006

Inheriting Loss

From my review of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss in Starmag today. It's funny and sad and very very relevant in its discussion of how we adapt when we move away from our roots, and the writing's wonderful.

CHO Oyu, a crumbling old house in the foothills of the Himalayas, is home to the main characters of Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, one of six books on the Man Booker Prize 2006 shortlist.

Sai is bundled off to convent boarding school when her parents leave India to take part in the Soviet space programme, and is orphaned when they meet an untimely death under the wheels of a Moscow bus. The only relative she has left is her grandfather, Jemubhai.

The former judge has totally withdrawn from life, investing all his emotional energy in his dog, Mutt. Sai’s presence in the house serves to break down the barriers the sour old man has built up against the weight of deeply shaming memories.

The judge’s cook, Nandu, a poor man grown old before his time, becomes the closest thing to family that Sai has. Yet he, too, nurses an anguish – his son Biju has left for America in the hope of a better life, and all that binds them is a fragile chain of letters.

Sai is hungry for tenderness and falls in love with her physics tutor Gyan, a young Nepalese boy. But when the two find themselves on opposite sides of a bitter racial conflict, the reader is kept wondering whether they will be able to summon enough maturity to weather their differences.

The situation is made more complicated when a rag-tag band of Gorka National Liberation Front guerrillas comes to the house to look for the judge’s old hunting rifles, and it is clear that Sai and her grandfather have been betrayed.

The Inheritance of Loss dips backwards and forwards in time, combines several different narrative threads and moves between three continents. It’s a very ambitious novel. Nevertheless, Desai manages to steer it away from being overly complex and bitty by providing a strong thematic link between the various subplots.

The novel explores the Indian obsession with the move overseas in the hope of a better life elsewhere, and the uneasy compromises it forces. Desai chronicles two journeys abroad which cleverly echo each other.

Jemubhai lies awake remembering how he was packed off to Cambridge just before the Second World War and cast off his Indianess to become an English gentleman, finding himself caught between two worlds and being fully accepted by neither.

Biju becomes part of an ever shifting army of illegal workers that moves from one underpaid restaurant job to another in kitchens which are a microcosm of the Third World.

He finds himself seeking “a clarity of principle” as he observes the uneasy relationship others have with their Indian roots and finding their place in a foreign country.

It is impossible not to feel deeply for the characters and there is a deep vein of melancholy running through the novel, although the book ends on a note of cautious optimism.

Sadness, too, is counterbalanced by a wealth of comic detail and by some of the most delightfully exuberant and playful writing I’ve come across recently.

Here's an interview with the author.


Chet said...

Your review makes me want to read the book. Can borrow, ah?

bibliobibuli said...

have already promised to lend to gim ean so either you can read first v. fast or after she gives it back

plus (and i whisper this) my copy is a v. valuable one 'cos tis an uncorrected proof!!! (one of the little perks of the job) so some differences in the text (i.e. the cook isn't named in my copy)

Chet said...

nvm, I go get my own copy.

bibliobibuli said...

if you can read within a week or two can borrow sure

bahan*kelabu said...

hi, just found your blog, have to quickly say, love your writings online and on paper.

so is the book a borrow or a buy :)

bibliobibuli said...

the book is a borrow - but a must-bring back and not spill coffee on borrow :-D. after gim ean. after chet.

most of my borrowers are well-behaved *LOL* and i do tend to get my books back eventually. some copies i don't care too much about. (scruffy paperbacks) some i do, very much.

i still haven't recovered from losing my first edition copy of 'the english patient' by michael ondaatje (which would be worth over a hundred brit pounds if i still had it!)

thanks for your kind words. much appreciated.

Lotus Reads said...

I won't read the review, I won't read the review, but only because I just won myself a copy of this book at BAFAB week! I will bookmark this post to return to after I read the book! :)

bibliobibuli said...

i do that too, lotus

can't read a review or even the blurb on the back of the book until i've read it! didn't read any other reviews of this until i'd sent mine in

congrats on winning yourself a copy. the only thinkg i'll give away is that you will enjoy it

Jane Sunshine said...

When I went for a reading of the current book,I was pleasantly surprised how unassuming and candid Kiran Desai was. She mentioned how difficult writing was and that it took her 8 years to write this book. I haven't read the book yet though ...

bibliobibuli said...

a little jealous you heard her read *LOL*