Desai’s 2006 Booker Prize winning novel tells the story of a teenage girl, Sai, her grandfather – a retired judge – and their cook, set in a border region of the Indian Himalaya, a region in which the British did ‘such a poor job of drawing borders’ when they left the country behind that a Nepali separatist movement has taken up a violent struggle that progressively worsens throughout the book. The story also traces a relationship between Sai and her tutor Gyan who becomes embroiled in the separatist movement, as well as the fate of the Cook’s son Biju, who has travelled illegally to the US for a chance of all the freedom and wealth that nation promises, only to find a much different reality. It is the intertwinning of these lives that moves the story forward. But it is also in part the weight of these various strands that renders the book less than I’d hoped for.
The story opens thus:
All day, the colours 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 vapour, 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.
When I read this, I got comfortable, sure that I was in the best of hands. And for the most part I was. Desai writes with a lyrical verve; she is poetic, her descriptions are detailed and alive, and her characters are well drawn. (I did find her fliting from one story arc to another perhaps a little too frequently however). There are many delightful passages and images, such as the entire village watching India beat Australia in a test match on a tv powered by a car battery becasue there is yet another black-out. But here’s the rub, as I was reading this a friend of mine said she’d found it “underwhelming”, and I might have to agree, for at times my interest stalled and the story seemed lacking in something. It has its humour, yet it lacked the fizz inherent in the best Indian work such as Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, or Rushdie at his imperial best. Of course there is a reason for this – the brutal truths of poverty and separatist violence, as well as the frustrated parallel tales of the Cook’s son Biju’s immigrant hopes in the US and the reminisced history of Sai’s grandfather, who recalls his own frustrations about being a foreigner in England and then the unfortunate fate of being a foreigner in his own country upon his return.
But as I read, I struggled to put my finger on why, despite my best attempts, I did not love this book. Perhaps I’d seen this collision of East & West before? Perhaps I was getting tired of it. I cast my mind back to other similar tales – The God of Small Things, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (which also has a fundamentalist story angle), Salman Rushdie’s East West, and others besides. It is the delightful East West of Rushdie, a series of 9 short stories – three under the banner or ‘East’, three under ‘West’, and the final three – and best – dealing with the ‘East West’ conjunction – that sets such a high bar and provides a wonderful foray into the lives of those who live under such foreign skies – and cultures – simultaneously.
And so, as I went further and further into the Inheritance of Loss, I felt I was losing something myself. I had sat down and made sure I had a pencil at hand to underline what I was sure were going to be numerous examples of luminous writing. And they were there, and any lover of good literature will find them and enjoy them, but, sadly, I did not need to sharpen my pencil once and my interest stalled in the middle of the story. It is perhaps because of the desperation and failure and loss inherent in the story – and present in the ending – as well as the weight of so many story arcs trying to intertwine, that rendered the whole less than the sum of its parts.
The Dilettante’s Rating: 3/5
For a perhaps more professional review of The Inheritance of Loss, see Natasha Walter’s Guardian review.
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai