Sunday, December 26, 2010
Book Review - The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
It’s hard for me to say whether Kiran Desai’s second novel, the 2006 Man Booker winner, The Inheritance of Loss, is panoramic or intimate. On one hand, it stretches from northern India to New York City to England, yet on the other, it focuses so closely on the lives of its primary characters that it can sometimes be almost claustrophobic. Focusing on the very poor and the middle class, this beautifully written and haunting novel lets its readers know how, even in the midst of change, there are people who long for the “old ways,” who desire not change, but stability and security. People who want to wake up in the morning and know that things are still the same.
Most of The Inheritance of Loss takes place in 1986 and is set in the northeastern Himalayas, “where India blurred into Bhutan and Sikkim,” where “it had always been a messy map.” The book focuses, in part, on Sai, a seventeen-year-old orphan, who now lives with her grandfather, a retired judge, a “leftover” of the Indian Civil Service, in a damp and crumbling house called Cho Oyu in the village of Kalimpong at the foot of the snowy massif of Mount Kangchenjunga. Sai is cared for by her grandfather’s talkative and (sometimes) optimistic cook, a man who focuses all his hopes and dreams on his own son, Biju, who he calls “the luckiest boy in the world” after he’s granted a US visa and goes to New York.
Conflict in this novel begins when Sai’s Nepali math tutor, Gyan, and the man with whom Sai has fallen in love, joins a Nepalese insurgent movement. In fact, the book opens with some of these insurgents breaking into Sai’s grandfather’s house to steal whatever they find useful, in this case, food, cold cream, Grand Marnier, and Sai’s grandfather’s old rifles. Although this is a painful inciting incident in an overall melancholy book, Desai does add a bit of humor to the escapade of the robbery in the form of the judge’s dog’s reaction:
Mutt began to do what she always did when she met strangers: she turned a furiously wagging bottom to the intruders and looked around from behind, smiling, conveying both shyness and hope.
The judge, however, is deeply humiliated and even has to prepare tea for the intruders who stole his possessions. Both Sai and the cook are so embarrassed and afraid for him that they avert their gazes (I’m glad Desai did not write “eyes”) from what is going on.
This humor in the midst of melancholy, found throughout, elevates this book beyond a merely “good” book to one that’s truly “great” as do many other elements, however, it’s melancholy that drives this book’s narrative, it’s melancholy that forms its soul, and it’s melancholy that readers will remember. Even the secondary characters, such as Sai’s neighbors, Swiss Father Booty and his alcoholic friend, Uncle Potty are melancholic, victims, of a sort, trapped in a world that no longer exists.
After setting up her story, Desai then drops back to quieter moments and shows us how the lives of Gyan and Sai and her grandfather, along with the cook and his son, Biju intertwine. The book roams from Kalimpong to New York City to England in the 1940s, where the judge’s experience of studying at Cambridge mirrors Biju’s experience in New York in that both approach their situations filled with idealism, and both are ground down by the experience of having to live life in a culture that perceives them – wrongly, of course – as only second class citizens.
Regarding the judge’s time at Cambridge, Desai writes:
Despite his attempts to hide, he merely emphasized something that unsettled others. For entire days nobody spoke to him at all…elderly ladies…moved over when he sat next to them in the bus, so he knew that whatever they had, they were secure in their conviction that it wasn't even remotely as bad as what he had.
And mirroring the judge’s experiences at Cambridge is Biju, who works in restaurants that are clean above and filthy below, and whose owners are nothing if not exploitative. Biju drifts from job to job, then:
Slipping out and back on the street. It was horrible what happened to Indians abroad and nobody knew but other Indians abroad. It was a dirty little rodent secret.
Desai seems not to be a proponent of multiculturalism, or perhaps she’s just not too optimistic about it.
Though many see the theme of The Inheritance of Loss as exile and displacement, I saw it as exile and displacement through the inability to communicate. After all, some of the characters that never leave Kalimpong end up alone and adrift. As this book shows clearly, one need not leave one’s home or place of birth in order to be exiled. The Inheritance of Loss is filled with failings, from the failing of a marriage to the failing of a “new life,” to the failing of a phone call.
I know people who felt this book contained too many story threads. I think it all depends on personal preference. Some people prefer to follow only one character through an entire book, no matter how long, while others prefer books that are more panoramic in scope. Desai does give us much backstory and many flashbacks. The structure of the novel is sophisticated; there are even flashbacks within flashbacks. Some readers will enjoy this, while others will find themselves impatient to get back to the story of Sai and Gyan and to the story of Biju. And it is true that Desai takes her time in letting her story unfold. For example, we learn about Gyan in Chapter One, but it’s twelve more chapters before Gyan actually enters the book. Eventually, though, Desai ties everything together and she does a wonderful job doing so.
One of the things I loved most about this book was the assured, confident, and beautiful writing. Desai is a keen observer of life and all its details, and she expresses her observations beautifully. This is but one example: “The gale took his words and whipped them away; they reached Biju's ears strangely clipped, on their way to somewhere else.” And this: “The flame cast a mosaic of shiny orange across the cook's face, and his top half grew hot, but a mean gust tortured his arthritic knees.”
I’ve never lived in a small village in northern India, but I certainly felt like I had after reading this beautiful book. I thought Desai no doubt captured the time period perfectly. Some of the characters – like Father Booty and Uncle Potty – seemed to want to live in a colonial time warp, where nothing changes, while others, such as Gyan, were dreaming of the changes a political upheaval could bring. All in all, I thought the characters, both those who resisted change and those who were fighting for it, were brilliantly realized.
Desai’s first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard was endorsed by Salman Rushdie and her writing, at the time, was compared to his. In truth, that book, which centers around a misfit named Sampath Chawla, who crawls up in the branches of a guava tree and won’t come down and in doing so achieves celebrity as a hermit, does contain many “Rushdie like” influences, though the writing is no where near as “furious” as Rushdie’s tends to be. The Inheritance of Loss is a totally different book altogether. Personally, I didn’t see a lot of “Rushdie like” influences in this second novel, which, in my opinion, is far superior to Desai’s first, though there are a few – strings of adjectives with no commas to separate them, occasional playfulness, and great energy – being the most prominent. The Inheritance of Loss is a quieter and more melancholy book that Rushdie usually writes (The Moor’s Last Sigh might be the exception), and the prose, while still gorgeous, is more spare than Rushdie’s. In this book, I think Desai shares more with V.S. Naipaul than she does with Rushdie, though most of the time, I try to avoid comparisons as they always seems unfair. Though writers sometimes do resemble other writers, each writer is unique.
You may not love The Inheritance of Loss due to its excessive melancholy (this is definitely not a “feel good” book), but I don’t think any serious reader is going to deny that the book is wonderfully written. In the end, The Inheritance of Loss is a luminous book, and, while not, perhaps, heartwarming, it is profoundly human in its promise and in its generosity.
Recommended: Yes, most definitely, to lovers of highly literary fiction and to readers who can tolerate a slower paced book.