Winner of the Man Booker prize 2006, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss is as different as can be from the Stephen King I just read. It’s very much a Booker book – clever, thoughtful, well written, with a welcome focus on characterisation rather than plot.
A couple of years ago I read Desai’s Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, and this was a brilliant satire on life in India – a celebration of individuality and a colourful account of a young man out of tune with his dysfunctional family and contemporary Indian society. The Inheritance of Loss is much darker, though it has equally comic moments and is equally perceptive in its exploration of the feelings of the young, convent educated girl who can’t really find a place in the turmoil and political chaos of northern India.
The focus is on a family which has close links to the Raj – the grandfather became a judge under the British system – and also links to more contemporary experiences of the dislocation caused by emigration. The cook’s son is in New York, hoping for a green card. The older women are anglophiles whose children live in the west. Around them, poverty and the politics of independence drive the narrative. The older generation look to the past, whilst the children seek new identities. The judge is, morally, a coward, the women self indulgent: both are inward looking and selfish. Neither the west of New York, nor the politics of independence offer satisfactory solutions to the younger generation.
In the end this is a story about personal relationships, not politics. Desai has real insights into the characters and is quite ruthless, almost cruel in revealing the weaknesses of the older generation. There is more sympathy for the younger characters – lost in the confusion of first love, blinded by false political allegiances, victim of racism and economic exploitation. It’s all here. I laughed out loud at times, but there is a harder core of compassion too.