Sunday, July 17, 2011

Athena K's review - The Inheritance of Loss

Through this novel, Kiran Desai transported me to a part of the world I had never spent any time thinking about - Northeastern India in the foothills of the Himalayas.  Her words evoked a fantastic sense of place and landscape that I really enjoyed.  And through the narrative structure of storytelling and memories she creates compelling and deeply flawed but fascinating characters.  This was a great novel.

The opening and closing sequences, describing the view from the central house overlooking the Himalayan Mountains, acted as a beautiful metaphor for many of the book's themes: 

"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 if ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at the summit."
For a person living in Seattle, the image of an almost corporeal mist hiding and revealing a stunning mountain resonates immediately.  And on those days when the Mountain (in my case, Mount Rainier) is exposed and lit by the evening light, there is nothing more beautiful, humbling, and inspiring.

 In this novel, Mount Kanchenjunga's appearance is a symbol for the discovery of deep and permanent truths, including love, family, and community.  We follow four main characters: Sai, an orphaned teenage girl on the verge of womanhood and independence; her grandfather the Judge, who has for most of his life rejected his Indianness in favor of Englishness; their cook, man who feels deep loyalty to the Judge and Sai, but is constrained by class and poverty, and his son Biju, an illegal immigrant in New York City striving to obtain his piece of the American dream. The novel is set against the backdrop of a sometimes violent uprising by Nepali-Indians demanding a separate and independent state.  Sai falls in love with a young man who chooses the movement over their love, and betrays her - a decision that torments him as he struggles with his conflicting feelings.

But for me the most interesting characters were those who attempted to reject their Indianness.  In their own ways both the Judge and Biju attempt to slough off their Indian culture and heritage in favor of Western ideals and dreams.  For the Judge, who studies in England and is appointed by the British before Independence, the India he sees is dirty, ignorant, classless.  He ultimately rejects Indianness to the greatest extent possible - from food and customs to his own wife and daughter.  Biju on the other hand rejects his Indianness only through perceived need.  He chases a dream of wealth and easy life that eludes him in New York.  Their decisions leave both the Judge and Biju miserable and cut off from family and community.  Only in the end, when all that both have worked for and accumulated has been lost, stolen, or decayed, does Mount Kanchenjunga reveal itself at the reunion of Biju and his father:

"The five peaks of Kanchenjunga turned golden with the kind of luminous light that made you feel, if briefly, that truth was apparent.  All you needed to do was to reach out and pluck it."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for telling about each of these books.