Hmm…you know this is not going to be good, when the post begins with a sound instead of a word! Is it just me or does sustained reading of award-winning literature addle the brain?! I’m beginning to wonder whether my brief love affair with the Bookers is heading for a premature end. First The Gathering and now this – The Inheritance of Loss, although with a name like that perhaps that’s what one should expect? The book is true to its rather romantic title…it’s about loss but in being ‘about loss’ it seems to have ‘lost its own way’ in a plethora of storylines, emotions and descriptions, all of which meander along their own separate course like tributaries to the ocean and yet fail to merge with it in the end. Very frustrating that!
The story (or should I say stories, coz at times they seem so disconnected), is set in Kalimpong during the Gorkha Uprising – turbulent years that the author documents at times with depth and insight, at others with casual panache, always through the effect the events have or don’t have on the lives of the characters that inhabit it. So we have Sai, the Judge, the Cook, Biju, Lola, Gyan, Uncle Potty and several others struggling to come to terms, each with their own losses, some imagined, some very real. So far so good. Where I had a problem was with the narrative that lacked focus…as I said earlier, perhaps I like my stories with one main character around which the remaining menagerie evolves. I realized (while reading this book) that I also prefer characters with a backbone, characters that eventually rise above their circumstance or learn from their experience and evolve, whether for better or for worse. Here, they stayed static or at least that’s how it seemed to me, and so felt very flat & one-dimensional. The Judge for example – prejudiced, misguided, cruel and small-minded because of his intense loneliness, stayed that way from the moment he appeared to the end, even though he managed to love Mutt. It’s the one selfless emotion he manages, in a narrow life lived as if on a bridge – eternally stuck in the middle, on a road to nowhere. Sai – similarly stuck in a maudlin world, an odd youngster amidst odder adults. The one character I did like was the Cook; he at least seemed to want more from life, although he too was stuck in a thankless job with a morose employer, and occasionally showed flashes of spirit however ineffective. Otherwise I felt at the end of the book that nothing had really changed, although a lot happened, if you get what I mean. I guess what I mean is the characters didn’t seem any different despite everything they had been through. While that may be authentic too for some, it’s not an appealing quality to me – I’m too fond of change!
I know little of the Gorkha Uprising, so I cannot comment on authenticity, but I have no reason to doubt Desai. No Uprising I have ever known or imagined has been anything but tragic for all involved even when the end result has been a perceived freedom of sorts for some. Violence is mandatory and suffering is a given and so it is here. I wish the author had chosen a more direct style, might have made the constant sadness and depression easier to read. As it is, the sudden jumps from America to Kalimpong and the different characters in each milieu were rather disconcerting. Biju’s life as an illegal immigrant in the US though was another area that struck a chord…well-written, although verbose and sometimes overly sentimental. There are very few happy moments in this book, and that told on me throughout the reading. Nothing offered respite from the depressing lives and times and how I longed for some humor! This book could do with a hefty dose of it, although I suppose that would be a different book! Oh how I missed it! Even when there is happiness, it is always accompanied by certain knowledge of its fleeting nature. So although there is a story here to be told, I guess I found the telling rather contrived and ineffectual and so unappealing. It gives me no pleasure to say so though – its hard for me to dislike a book, I almost never do. I tried hard to like this one but could only manage a general feeling of indifference for the most part. There was a point when Gyan gets involved with the GNLF, where I thought things would switch into a higher gear and get more interesting but that never happened.
I know it’s wrong and unfair to compare and although I don’t want to, I can’t help but, because Desai’s mother Anita Desai is a formidable talent and one of my favourite authors. I was lucky enough to attend a reading by her in Singapore and came away a fan for life! I hadn’t read her before and after – I couldn’t stop! Her style is what I love – simple, direct, yet subtle and precise. She knows what she wants to say and has no trouble saying it with an economy of words that is painfully breathtaking. ‘Fasting, Feasting’ and ‘Clear Light of Day’ are unforgettable reads. I’ve blogged about my experience here. Perhaps my bias towards the mother colors my view of her daughter’s work? I won’t deny it – I’m human after all! That said, I have read Kiran Desai’s HullaBaloo in the Guava Orchard many, many years ago and I can’t remember anything about it 😛 Perhaps I should revisit it now – but I know I won’t. Not anytime soon anyway!
For the most part, I found this book – here comes the ‘B’ word – boring and sluggish. I reached the end to find that I couldn’t care less what happened to any of the characters – they had failed to hold my attention or even win my sympathy. Now all I’m left with is a sense of loss…of potential undelivered, of a promise unfulfilled. Frankly, I’m amazed this won the Booker. Perhaps I need to look at the other nominations and read a few of them to understand the why and how! I remember how the hype surrounding the book when it was first nominated put me off reading it for all this time. With good reason it seems! In one word – avoidable.
John Banville’s The Sea is next.
Wish me Luck People 🙂