Book Review: The Inheritance of Loss

[This article was originally published in The Jamaica Sunday Observer. This online version has been slightly amended from the original article.]

Following the global success of Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard, Kiran Desai’s second novel is a spectacular oeuvre that has been heralded by critics and readers alike as one of the year’s finest books. Suketu Mehta said of the work of fiction: ‘(It is) a revelation of the possibilities of the novel’, and indeed, for The Inheritance of Loss there seems to be no boundaries. The 395 page volume spans over four generations and two continents. However the quality of this mammoth novel lies not only in its breadth but also in its depth. The narrative not only explores universal themes such as love, hatred, longing and abandonment but also adroitly tackles the most pressing of contemporary issues: economic inequality, immigration, globalisation, post-colonialism, nationalism and terrorism.

The novel is primarily set in the foothills of north-eastern India during the 1980s. This is a turbulent period for a politically volatile region, and the narrative progresses alongside a growing disquiet amongst the area’s inhabitants and an uprising amongst Nepalese insurgents. Despite the portentous political backdrop, The Inheritance of Loss is a story of inexorable magic and quiet optimism that does not once come across as preachy or too historically loaded. Desai makes the political personal by relating the events through the eyes of an array of colourful characters who are always at the foreground of the narrative.

At the head of the teeming cast is Jemubhai Patel, a Cambridge-educated retired judge, who lives with his cherished dog, his lowly cook and his orphaned granddaughter on an estate called Cho Oyu. The estate was once majestic but is now falling apart and this provides a poignant metaphor for the Judge’s life; Jemubhai has always hidden behind a façade of pride and former glory but the wear and tear of life is slowly but surely revealing him to be the insecure, loveless man that he is. His granddaughter’s arrival at Cho Oyu triggers a heap of repressed memories and he eventually has to come to terms with the bleak realities of his life.

This is not the only unravelling that takes place during the course of the novel: Desai is spectacularly adept at dismantling the illusions that surround cherished myths. She ruthlessly scrutinizes each and every character, exposing their human foibles as well as their qualities, whilst simultaneously critically assessing the political setting of the novel, divulging the sprawling mess the British left behind when they built a colony on fantastical hopes and dreams.

The Inheritance of Loss is essentially about belonging: none of the characters feel they ‘belong’ and perhaps this is because, as the title suggests, they have inherited the loss of identity from ancestors who were forced to give up their country, and much of their culture, to colonialists. Desai’s characters have all been displaced: the judge can no longer relate to his people after the years he spent in England ‘work(ing) at being English with the passion of hatred’; his granddaughter, Sai, was brought up in a British convent and has eaten every meal of her life with a knife and fork. The character of Sai is in stark contrast to the cook, who lives in abysmal poverty and whose only hope is his son, Biju, whom he has sent to the States in pursuit of the ‘American dream’. We follow the trials and tribulations of the cook’s son in a parallel narrative that takes us to the backstreets of downtown New York, where Biju shifts swiftly and silently from under-paid job to under-paid job whilst secretly longing to return home.

The novel is written in sumptuous prose that is exquisitely versatile. Desai is able to conjure the awe-inspiring majesty of the cloud-enshrouded Himalayan Mountains just as deftly as she captures the gritty realities of downtown New York. The true quality of the book is indisputably in the detail: Desai astutely evokes every sight, every feeling her characters observe, and this sweet attention to detail is what brings to life so vividly every setting, every scene. The story is recounted in the voice of omniscient narrator, a technique that is reminiscent of legendary writers such as Tolstoy and Dickens, but Desai deploys a liberal tone and innovative style that bring to mind great contemporary writers such as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith. Upon occasion, the all-too frequent leaps in time and perspective create a disjointed and confusing effect on the reader, but this small discrepancy is easily overlooked in a book so enchanting and astonishingly perceptive. The novel has been described by Hermione Lee, Chair of the judges of The Man Booker Prize 2006 (which The Inheritance of Loss won), as ‘a magnificent novel of humane breadth and wisdom, comic tenderness and powerful political acuteness ’. And here at Bookends we definitely agree!