Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review: The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

This review has been stewing in my mind this week, and I have had a hard time putting into words the series of complex issues and relationships presented by Kiran Desai's brilliant novel The Inheritance of Loss. Clearly, this is a postcolonial novel, outlining the complex cultural problems surrounding identity and nationalism. Having said that, I will attempt to review, what I believe was one of the most compelling books I've read this year. I don't know how many people will read my complete review, but for me, this was one review I couldn't shy away from really delving into and writing more, than less.

Synopsis: In the last paragraph of chapter one, Desai outlines the main storyline of her text: a retired judge, his granddaughter Sai, the cook, and the dog Mutt all reside at the base of Mt. Kalimpong in the Himalayas, at a crossroad of ever-growing hatred and dissatisfaction with the world and how it has been left to them. Here we find an insurgency of Indian-Nepalese growing more and more dissatisfied with the poverty they face, their lack of homeland, and the remnants of a colonial world they embraced, yet hate, yet somehow still need to hold their society together.

As India tries to continue to return to its cultural ways from a time before the colonizer, we find people questioning what is right and good to embrace, and the ironies in doing so. For instance, the judge, upon his return from college in England (where he was hated and looked down on), brings back the accoutrements of a society he learned was "advanced," and to which he now feels akin to and should be more like now that his own social standing in India will far outrank those around him. These accoutrements include a powder puff, which his wife finds strange and silly, and quickly stuffs down her shirt. The judge throws the house into a veritable tizzy in an effort to find said puff (which no one can pronounce and are too embarrassed to explain to others such a dandified object), and becomes incensed when he learns that it was his wife that took them. His social standing is that of the highest ranking in his town (brought on by an education earned at a British college in England), and is recognized and feared by all around him as such, yet he is mocked on every side for his lack of Indianness and his new adopted British qualities that many are embarrassed of him for.

In the meantime, Biju, the cook's son, has taken off for the United States to earn lots of money and great prestige for his father and country. Biju lands in New York City, only to find more poverty, low-paying jobs that have him unable to buy housing, and interacting with people he would never have considered before. Biju learned what it meant to be an Indian, regardless of their worldwide presence:
From other kitchens, he was learning what the world thought of Indians:
In Tanzania, if they could they would throw them out like they did in Uganda.
In Madagascar, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Nigeria, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Fiji, if they could, they would throw them out.
In China, they hate them.
In Hong Kong.
In Germany.
In Italy.
In Japan.
In Guam.
In Singapore.
South Africa.
They don't like them.
In Guadeloupe--they love us there?
No. (77)
Although Biju was in the great land of freedom and opportunity, he worked to survive, watched rampant waste going on around him when he knew people at home starved, watched people turn their back on cultural practices they led their families to believe they continued, watched newbies arrive only to allow them to flounder and figure it out the way he was forced to, and watched as his understanding of who he was and what he really wanted out of life disappeared.

Then there is the granddaughter Sai, who has been left orphaned and must live with her Indian grandfather that perpetually lives in a British lifestyle, antiquated and falling in around him. Sai has also been raised more "colonial" than Indian, which distances her more and more from the society she lives in. Tutored by a Indian-Nepalese man, she falls in love (or what she believes is love), and the tutor and student experience the joys of life and the community together until the cultural/social clash comes down to haunt their mixed cultural relationship. What was once a small mountain valley town, now becomes a veritable war zone. Those with any vestiges of a colonial past in their lives are held up as the demon holding back "natives" who have lost their lands, culture, and economic holdings. Beyond issues of politics and land distribution, culture becomes the main factor under attack, and all involved in the margins of these cultures are forced to assign themselves to a side.

Review: I can't adequately say how much this novel moved me, troubled me, and worried me. As with many postcolonial/postmodern novels, there are few answers, and many issues brought to the reader's attention. You see that the vestiges of any colonizer leaves those behind with a fierce struggle to determine identity, either stripped of all things colonized, or embittered by evidence that one's former native self might be lacking in some areas. Where does that leave one's identity? In this case, if you like anything British, does that make you non-Indian? How do you etch out an identity from what is left of your former culture, when so much of your economic footholds and social standings are still tied to the former colonizer? It's all so complex, that you can see why it left my head swimming a bit.

The thing I liked the most about Desai's narrative was that it was non-linear. I didn't find this non-linear pattern to be disturbing in the least, in fact, as we bounced backward and forward in time and location, we see even more clearly how troubling is one's identity. Plus, this switching of storylines made me eager to keep reading so that I could learn more about each character. The one thing I have to mention though, would be my response to the judge and his marriage. Although you get that the judge finds he can't relate to his fiercely"desi" wife, in the remnants of his life in England, he seems more angry that he can't get a British wife but may not want one. Then who can he relate to? Not only is he too Indian, but he's not Indian enough, and his relationship with his wife becomes horrifyingly disconnected, disturbing, and downright abusive. I couldn't read the sections that dealt with their relationship fast enough; I just wanted it to be over with and move along. It was just too painful, and made me sad for all involved.

In connection to this sad story of love and disconnection, I have to share one of my favorite quotes of the entire novel. In the opening scene of the novel, we are actually set in the future (without knowing she's starting at the end) waiting for the tutor to arrive as Sai considers the following of love:
Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself. (3)
I don't know why, but I underlined this quote about love and starred it a million times. Why? Maybe because my own connection to love has been so painful, and that all I see can relate to this beautiful sentiment about love being about all that surrounds love. How does one actually get to the core of it? What a beautifully messy way of describing it!

Overall, Desai's novel was painfully brilliant. Little answers are provided in this agonizing tale of postcolonial discontent and lost identity, yet the awareness brought about by its complexities are breathtaking.

This also fulfills one requirement for the 1% Well Read Challenge.

For more information see: The Inheritance of Loss


  1. Very excellent review! This book definitely sounds complex, but then it deals with a complex situation. I know very very little about India, but I think the experience of not knowing who you (like Bijou) are happens to a lot of immigrants. Our culture defines what we want and how we behave so much that when we're separated from it for a long period of time, it's hard to hold onto self-identity. Or that's my theory, anyway.

  2. This is a fantastic review! I have had this on my shelf for a while now but I've hesitated to pick it up lately because it is so deep. Maybe I'll be ready after a little more fluff. ;)

  3. This is an outstanding review! I bought this book at the library sale last summer, but haven't felt compelled to read it - until now!

  4. Nice review! So obvious you put a lot of thought into it. Thanks for writing it.

  5. Nice review! I read this a while ago - long before I started a blog - and have yet to put a review or rating on LT, GR, BN and AM but I am slowly getting around to it. Glad that you enjoyed it.

  6. Great review! i haven't read a book like that in a long time and am just recalling how much they can affect you.

    I enjoy the post colonial literature with the issues of nationality and belonging, being a post colonial child myself.

    I do want to check this out now. thank you for the review!

  7. Wow...fabulous review. You know, I was on the fence about this one because I'd heard some very mixed things about it, but you've convinced me. I'm adding it to my list.

  8. Oh, I forgot to ask... what is a powder puff?

  9. heidenkind--True. Identity is a tricky thing for many people, in all sorts of circumstances. Makes you question whether there are ways of eliminating such concrete ideas of self? Don't know. Anyway...the powder puff was for putting on talc for the body (to absorb sweat) and also for his judge wig. At least that's what I gathered. To the other Indians, it seemed very dandified (or feminine), so they made fun of him. I actually kept trying to picture it though too! :)

    Meghan -- Nothing wrong with fluff! :) Enjoy, and then you can give this a try sometime down the line.

    JoAnn -- I hope you like it. I really enjoyed it, but I devoured it pretty quickly in the 48 hour challenge, which kind of forces you to totally immerse yourself. Hopefully you'll like it!

    Cathy -- Thanks for the kind words! Now I'm wondering what you thought of it?

    gaby317 -- If you come from a postcolonial background, it would be interesting to see what you thought or how you might see connections between the feelings of the characters and yourself or your family? Thanks for the nice comment!

    Nymeth -- Now I'm curious what mixed things you've heard! I haven't read anything about it, but I really thought it was so thought-provoking that I couldn't help but really love it. It's tough, but really poignant!

  10. I skipped your synopsis, but I really enjoyed your review of the book. I've heard kind of mixed things about it, but I think after reading your thoughts it will be one I really love. Postcolonial literature fascinates me (took a course in college)--the themes are so complex but so strikingly real and pertinent. Have you read Midnight's Children by Rushdie? I would highly recommend it--kind of sounds like it has the same feel as this book but different storyline of course. I'll be reading this one soon for the OT challenge, so I'll be sure to bump it up on the list.

  11. Thanks Trish. I actually have read Midnight's Children, back in graduate school. I especially remember how hard it was to get through because of the density of the material! Great connection. I should maybe re-read it at some point.

  12. I remember especially thinking the third section the hardest to get through! Others I have enjoyed are The Bone People and The God of Small Things--have you read those?