The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is the Booker Prize winner from 2006 and is a novel about a community of misfits from the north eastern Himalayas, each with a very different background from this caste based society, still rocking from colonial days. The novel follows them as they try to find their way in a very harsh environment that is jostling for survival, position and for power, struggling for change in a society where tradition is so important.
Why I Read It
My favourite way to select a book to read is through a recommendation from a friend with similar taste, but at a loss recently as to what to read next, I had a look at previous Booker Prize winners to see whether any caught my imagination (and was available on the library book shelves!). I selected the Inheritance of Loss and The Gathering by Anne Enright (you can read my review on this too, if you like!).
Reading is so subjective and such a personal experience, that you cannot guarantee that just because a book has won a prize or been included in the Richard and Judy Book Club, that you are going to enjoy it. Still, selecting from a prize winner means you will usually get SOMETHING out of reading it, even if it is not entertainment...
I had no pre-conceptions about this book, but I was attracted by the quote from Suketu Mehta (the New York based, Indian born, author 'Maximum City')on the blurb:
"A revelation. Vast in scope, from the peaks of the Himalayas to the immigrant quarters of New York; the gripping stories of people buffeted by the winds of history, personal and political"
The novel centres around a household in Kalimpong in the foothills of the Himalayas, made up of a gruff and grumpy old judge, his orphaned teenage grand daughter, Sai, and their overly talkative, poverty stricken cook. They live in a large, crumbling house, obviously grand at some point in the past, but left to deteriorate in the harsh climate of the area.
The book also takes in the struggles of the cook's son, an illegal immigrant in New York, working his way through menial jobs with no rights, making no impression on the world he has entered, literally lost in the system.
Their individual stories are revealed through the novel and through the impact on their life of an insurgency by the Gorkhali people fighting for their own identity.
The novel takes on some really big themes, those of love and loss, the fight for and against change, poverty, deception and the fight for survival.
Kiran Desai was born in India in 1971 and was educated in India, England and the US. Prior to the Inheritance of Loss she published one other novel - Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, which was very well received by the critics and published across the world.
Whilst it is not autobiographical, the novel is said to have some parallels with her own life. In the novel the character of the judge travels from penury in Gujarat to Cambridge University. So did Desai's grandfather. The mansion in the book was inspired by Desai's aunt's house in Kalimpong. Like Sai, the teenager in the novel, Desai attended a convent school in a Himalayan town.
Apparently, the small town of Kalimpong is now railing against it's portrayal in this book which has now brought this small, beautiful and troubled corner of the world to the attention of so many. They do not appreciate Desai's portrayal of the people there.
There is no doubt that this is beautifully written. The prose is not complicated, but it is subtle and well observed. The opening is a good example of Desai's description of the area:
"All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapor, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit."
The juxtaposing of old and modern, traditional and changing, natural beauty and the ugly poverty and hardship of the inhabitants was interesting and at times a confusing and uncomfortable read.
The internal workings of the characters are well portrayed. In particular the relationship between Sai and here tutor, Gyan, is well played out. Their immediate attraction is followed by emotions of anger, resentment, regret brought on by the confusion of young love and the complexities of their very different social backgrounds. The dynamics of this relationship are well played out and whilst the characters are not always particularly engaging or sympathetic, you do wish this would have a positive outcome and each time they clash you are disappointed.
The inner turmoil of the cook's son, Biju, as he tries to make a life for himself in New York, is also very well played out:
"Clumsy in America, a giant-sized midget, a bigfat-sized helping of small.... Shouldn't he return to a life where he might slice his won importance, to where he might relinquish this overrated control over his own destiny..."
My main complaint about the novel is that for the majority of it, the portrayal of these individuals' lives are a bit like fragments of short stories, sewn together to make a rich tapestry of this world so different from our own. I found this left the novel lacking in any real momentum and made it difficult to care about what happens next. The pace does pick up right at the end of the novel, making sure that it is not an unsatisfying read overall, but I didn't find it to be a page turner at all.
Maybe 3 stars is a little harsh, but there is no option for 3.5 stars and for me it doesn't compare with other books I've read and given 4 stars to.
If you look at the reviews on Amazon, the are very evenly spread across the marks, demonstrating that people respond to this novel in very different ways.
So, would I recommend this novel?
Well, I think it would have to be a conditional recommendation. Consider the content carefully - if you would find this geographical area and/or culture interesting, then I would recommend it. If you have no vested interest in this area, but enjoy being engaged in a compelling story, then I would probably steer clear.
The book is available in paperback from Amazon at for £5.99. You can get a second hand copy for under £1 and my copy came gratis from the library.
It's published by Penguin in the UK and my copy is 324 pages long.
The beauty of the book is that it has been able to create a vivid picture under the seemingly abstract title it possesses. Several protagonists are all linked to one another through either relationship and acquaintances or the sheer reality of being apart in a compartmentalised world. The storyline is such that it seals the fate of one and all in a similar way despite the differences in the journeys that they make across different continents and different times.
The main character the story is then 'Judge', a justice of the yesteryears. He is a Gujarati with British education. He is also a man who has nursed a thousand contradictions within him throughout his life.His material achievements to date have ironically contributed to depriving him of his humane touch. His life is a sad depiction of a man striving to achieve heights in a colonised world.
His granddaughter, Sai, a teenager is yet another hybrid of the East and West. Apart from these two characters, the ones which are sure to catch the fancy of many a readers is Gyan, the Nepali tutor for Sai and Mutt - the pet dog of 'Judge'.
While Gyan personifies a poor, young lad who is capable but unsure of his feelings (his attraction towards Sai) and motive in life (his joining the Gurkha movement for independence), Mutt is an amiable dog who evokes affection and belongingness in an otherwise hardened and embittered 'Judge'. Ofcourse, then there is the loyal 'Cook' and several other characters all adding small elements to the story - be it humour or poignancy.
The story is based in Sikkim which is caught in the turmoil of freedom movement of the Gurkhas during those times,
and fear among the local population has been lucidly described in the story. The seriousness of the story content is tinged with humour, making it an interesting read.
The greatest Book Fair of the work takes place in Frankfurt/Main, Germany. Every year a country is invited to present its literature, last year India was the guest of honour. German newspapers reported on the event in detail, when the name Kiran Desai appeared repeatedly and her novel The Inheritance of Loss was praised by all reviewers, I decided to order the English original from British Amazon, I even invested in a hardcover edition so that I wouldnt have to wait too long for the pleasure of reading this book.
For some reason the delivery was delayed, however, and while I was waiting, the author won the Booker Prize. The Booker Prize! I was paralysed, when the novel finally arrived, I couldnt even open it, I put it on the shelf and regretted the Loss of Money, only after three quarters of a year I felt I was up to giving it a try. If you think I reacted strangely, read my review on last years Booker Prize winner The Sea by John Banville! Was my apprehension justified?
The story is about a retired, Cambridge-educated judge living in a small town in the north-eastern Himalayas together with his cook and his pet dog, his granddaughter comes to stay with him when shes 14 years old, shes been sent away from the Catholic convent where she was educated because her parents have died and nobody pays for her any more. The cooks son lives as an illegal immigrant in New York where he drifts from one menial job to another working in restaurant kitchens.
Ive used the word story, not plot, because the two threads are not intertwined. I read in a review that they were and expected Sai, the judges granddaughter, and Biju, the cooks son, to meet at some point in their lives, maybe to fall in love with each other, but nothing of the kind happens, the two stories run parallel but do not meet, theyre only connected very loosely by the letters the cook and his son exchange. In my opinion the author decided on these two different stories in two different settings to have more opportunities to show how Indians live and what experiences they make in our times.
I know nothing about India, so I googled Kalimpong, the town near which the judge and Sai live, I wasnt sure if the author had invented the place names or if the setting was real, I found out that Kalimpong is located in the northern part of the state of West Bengal, in the north-eastern region of India, 50 km away from Darjeeling, adjacent to the state of Sikkim. It is set amongst the foothills of Indias highest mountain, the Kanchenjunga.
The time is the mid-1980s, when there was an insurgence from the Nepalis living in India who fought for an independent Ghorkaland, the cruel events of this period are closely connected with and influence the fate of the fictitious characters - besides the judge, the girl and the cook we also get to know two sisters one of whom teaches Sai, two British ex-pats whove forever lived in India, Sais teacher of physics, Gyan, a young Nepali student, who takes over when the elderly teacher has to admit that she doesnt understand the subject any more.
What strikes me most about the protagonists is their different ethnic background which also means different religions and different languages and how Indians get along with each other (or not), that people who live in the same household have to resort to pidgin versions of their languages to be able to communicate with each other, that often English is their only common language, that some Indians can only speak English at all and no Indian language, then their attitudes towards their home country, the British and Great Britain and to America.
The majority of people we meet in the story dislikes/abhors/hates India and their only wish is to get out as quickly as possible. Better leave sooner rather than later . . . India is a sinking ship . . . The scenes taking place in front of the American Embassy are incredible for me but realistic, Im afraid.
Members of the middle-class who cant get out or dont want to leave despite all the problems they see live as British a they can under the circumstances. The two sisters house is called Mon Ami (not English, but European) its vegetable patch containing the countrys only broccoli grown from seeds procured in England. Their washing line sagged under a load of Marks and Spencer panties. There was Wedgewood in the dining room. The only people who care for the country are the Nepalis who constitute for 80% of the population in this area, they want to stay but under their own rule and when they cant get what they want, they use force.
The fictitious characters are exotic for Western readers but with the exception of Sai and Gyan they arent round in the sense that they change or develop during the time were with them. They stand for a way of life and thats it, the old judge is the weakest creation in my opinion, hes so mean, so utterly nasty, that he borders on caricature, pity, the author could have done better.
What shes really good at is description, when she describes the landscape and nature, the plants and animals - butterflies!- I have everything in front of my inner eye, she uses a lot of words I dont know and I bet readers whose mother tongue is English dont know, either, but I dont get the feeling that she wants to show off (like John Banville in The Sea), she uses her vocabulary to create an atmosphere.
It seems to have become an ingredient of the genre - if we can call the novels by Asian writers writing in English on Asian countries a genre - to use words, expressions, whole sentences in the language(s) of the respective country without offering explanations; I wasnt any to pleased when I read Rushdie for the first time and had to think all the time, Now, what does that word mean? Why doesnt he tell me? Does he want me to find it out myself? Later I had the opportunity of asking Qaisra Sharaz, the Pakistani writer (The Holy Woman), personally if she used Urdu expressions to create an exotic atmosphere for the readers from the West, and she told me that it was just that.
Kiran Desai occasionally uses unconventional means to rub something in, so when the cook boasts of the many different kinds of puddings his son can make we get ten and a half lines of names of puddings all written one after the other looking like one word, that is quite funny. On the whole I dont consider the novel to be funny, though. Quite obviously my sense of humour differs from the one of book critics in the English speaking world, when I read of Desais delicious humour, I dont know what theyre talking about.
At times I found The Inheritance of Loss even quite sad, especially the immigrant fate the cooks son experiences in New York pulled me down, delicious humour should at least make me smile or laugh every now and then, shouldnt it? But I did nothing of the kind while reading the novel.
I consider the novel well written, moving and humane and Im glad I overcame my paralysis.
Hamish Hamilton (Hard Cover)
RRP 16.99 GBP
Penguin Books (Paperback)
RRP 7.99 GBP
If you follow the literary press or listen to Radio 4 arts programmes, you'll almost certainly recognise 'The Inheritance of Loss' as this year's winner of the Man Booker Prize. And you may have wondered if it's worth buying and reading - or whether you can get away with reading a review of it so you can pretend to your friends at the book club that you have read it. Does that sound a tad harsh and cynical? I'm sure I wasn't the only one who had a good giggle at The Vicar of Dibley book club scene in the Christmas special, where nobody had actually read the book.
Most years I splash out and treat myself to the books on the Booker shortlist. Lest that should sound too indulgent, I have to admit that I buy them heavily discounted through The Book People - a company which I'm sure is familiar to many economy-conscious members of the site. This year I was particularly keen to get the set even before the winner was announced because I wanted to read Kiran Desai's book. There were several reasons for this - firstly I've read a lot of books by her mother, Anita Desai, who has been short-listed three times but never won; secondly I have a particular interest (i.e. almost a whole IKEA 'Billy' bookcase-full) in contemporary fiction about India and by Indian writers; and finally, this particular book is set in Kalimpong, one of the Indian Himalayan 'hill stations' that's high on my list of places I want to visit.
~ India and the Booker Prize ~
Due to the nature of the prize - i.e. it's awarded to British or Commonwealth writers - India has been a strong theme in Booker Prize short-lists over the years. Some writers get on for almost every book they write - Salman Rushdie is a good example, as is my favourite writer (who always gets listed and never wins) Rohinton Mistry. By my reckoning, more than half of the annual lists have representation by an Indian writer or a book about India and to date about 6 of the winners fall into that category.
Currently the prize brings the winner a big fat cheque for £50k but more importantly, membership of a literary elite that should guarantee lots of extra royalties and a really good advance for future books. However, at times it can seem like a Booker nomination can be as much of a curse as a blessing - the automatic assumption that a book must be 'heavy' or 'boring' hasn't been helped by recent winners like John Banville's 'The Sea' - a book so turgid and wordy that it should be sold with a dictionary. Anyone want a hard back copy, going cheap, not even opened? (I read the reviews - much easier than reading that particular book).
But enough of all this - let's cut to the chase. The question most people will want to ask is 'Is this book worth a read?' And my answer is a firmly 'sitting on the fence' one of 'Yes, but!' - a definite yes for me but it won't be to everyone's taste.
~ The Writer ~
Kiran Desai was born in Delhi and lived in India until she was 14 when her family moved first to the UK and then a year later to the USA. Like her female lead character she was convent-educated and like one of her characters, she experienced hostility and alienation when moving to a new country. Her mother is a famous writer (well lets say "highly respected" rather than famous - she's no Danielle Steel) but the writing style of the two is quite different as are the themes covered. However I would concede that both write books that are long on description and relatively short on plot.
At 35 years old, Desai is the youngest woman ever to win the prize and was already highly acclaimed in literary circles for her first novel 'Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard' which won a Betty Trask award when it was published in 1998. She spent a massive eight years writing this latest book which, whilst the book IS very good, is still an exceptionally long gestation for a book of 300 and some-odd pages. Much has been made of the parallels between the book and Desai's family history but it's not an autobiography. Desai herself has said that in places it's about experiences within her family - such as the experience of immigration and going back to India. I can only assume that researching the family and political history has contributed to the lengthy writing process. Otherwise, sorry dear but what took you so long?
~ A Bit About the Plot ~
The Booker judges called 'The Inheritance of Loss' a "radiant, funny and moving family saga and has been described by reviewers as 'the best, sweetest, most delightful novel'". So what's it all about?
A retired Judge was quietly and grumpily living out his days in the shadow of the giant Himalayan mountain, Kanchenjunga. His companion was a much-loved dog called Mutt - probably the only living being he really cared about. Born into poverty in Gujerat, he had won a place at Cambridge University which, at the time, had been an almost guaranteed ticket to a 'good job' with the Indian Civil Service. He had no money for his fare and was only able to go to England by attracting the attention and financial support of a wealthy social climber who wanted his daughter to marry a man with a big future. Therefore, he married the girl, pocketed a generous dowry and a ticket for the ship to England without her. On returning from Cambridge - a place where he felt totally isolated and very foreign - he found his wife too 'Indian' and sent her back to her parents, where six months later she produced a daughter. When that daughter was subsequently killed with her husband in Russia (they were involved in the space programme, which should have been an interesting theme but wasn't developed at all in the book), their only child, Sai, was left with no other living relative. The Judge grudgingly agreed for her to come and live with him in his ramshackle home in the mountains.
The other key player in the judge's household is the cook - another outsider from a different region of India. All his hopes are riding on his son Biju, who had the good fortune to get a tourist visa for the USA and left to make his fortune. Instead he found only illegal, underpaid work in the kitchens of a succession of New York restaurants. Biju struggles to buy into the American immigrant dream and is confused by the 'made good' Indian Hindu business men eating 'rare' steaks in one of the restaurants where he worked.
Back in Kalimpong, the Judge hired two elderly ladies - Lola and Noni - to tutor his granddaughter. These old girls clung to the old ways - with their M&S undies and pride in Pixie, Lola's daughter who works for the BBC. They soon found they couldn't cope with Sai's maths and physics tutoring and drafted in the help of a local Nepali man, Gyan, who became gently but romantically involved with Sai.
Other minor characters who each in some way share the sense of 'loss' alluded to in the title include Father Booty (a Swiss priest who runs an unlicensed dairy) and Uncle Potty. Everyone is in some way alienated by their environments and experiences, clinging on to aspects of the colonial past whilst not belonging entirely to the 'old ways' and not fitting in with the new.
~ The Political Backdrop ~
The novel is set in the 1980s not long after the assassination of Indira Ghandi. This isn't a period I knew anything about as the focus of most contemporary writing about India tends to be either around the time of independence and partition or more recently. The backdrop to the action in the novel is political unrest in Kalimpong where Nepali Ghurkas are campaigning - at first quite quietly and then with increasing force - for an independent Ghurkaland. The uprising brings a new wave of change to the main characters as conditions become significantly worse and much of what they've come to take for granted is brought into doubt. Desai has been condemned by local people in Kalimpong for portraying them as ignorant and violent and for being condescending. There's nothing quite like a good book burning on a cold mountain night!
~ What did I think? ~
Having been to other areas of the Indian Himalayas I loved the descriptions of daily life in Kalimpong and I was able to clearly picture the surroundings. I also valued (rather than enjoyed) the exploration of the behaviour of the post-colonial well-to-do and their blindness when faced with the challenge of adapting to change. One of the old sisters comments about the rise of Chicken Tikka Masala as the British national dish which I felt was out of place. Whilst it's true enough today I don't think that would have been the case in the early 1980s. Even though the plot wasn't strong, I wanted to keep on reading because of the strength of the descriptions of Indian life. If you have no interest in India then I'd suggest that maybe this isn't the book for you - without the setting, the story would struggle to carry a reader along. I also have to say that I haven't read the other five books yet but I've certainly read much better books from previous years that haven't won. Maybe she struck it lucky this year - but there's nothing in this book that could hold a candle to anything Rohinton Mistry has been listed for.
The page-space given to the main characters is quite balanced but if forced to identify two 'main characters' I would say they were Sai, the Judge's granddaughter, and Biju, the cook's son. Biju was probably the character I developed most respect for but at times it wasn't easy to care very much about most of the other characters - they are stubborn, unlovable, set in their way or, in the case of Sai, in need of a good slap to get her out of her dreamy romantic torpor. As a romantic suitor, Gyan, the tutor, is poor stuff - he and Sai call each other 'momo', the name for a small Nepalese filled dumpling.
The book has a growing sense of despair and decay as if the people, like the houses they live in and the property they own, are succumbing to the damp and mould of a monsoon season. The novel lacks a firm sense of where it's going but that's not untypical for Indian novels and doesn't necessarily count against it. I kept looking for pointers that would signify the next big plot development but there really weren't any - the tale just plodded along in its own beautifully-written but not very exciting path.
It's a beautifully constructed book that gives you a warm satisfying feeling that you are reading something of merit but it's also an exceptionally melancholy tale - nobody is happy with their lot, everyone is missing something fundamental in their lives and suffering some form of 'separateness' that leaves them dissatisfied. It's a tale of great regrets for things done and things not done, sometimes many years before.
Also posted on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
At the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas, lives an embittered old judge who wants nothing more than to retire in peace. But with the arrival of his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, and his cook's son trying to stay a step ahead of US immigration services, this is far from easy. When a Nepalese insurgency threatens Sai's blossoming romance with her handsome tutor they are forced to consider their colliding interests. The judge must revisit his past, his own journey and his role in this grasping world of conflicting desires every moment holding out the possibility for hope or betrayal.