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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 Plot ~~~~~~~ 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.
The Author ~~~~~~~~ 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. My Thoughts ~~~~~~~~~~ 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.
Recommendation ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 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.
Practicalities ~~~~~~~~~~ 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.