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Prize-winning books do not always live up to the media hype that surrounds them, but that same hype draws us inexorably towards them, often proving to be more seductive than the book itself! However, we were not disappointed with this month’s choice – Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss – winner of the Man Booker Prize 2006.
The poignant title belies the nature of the book which, although it deals with loss at all levels, is ultimately an optimistic story about the human condition and how we deal with and adapt to the changes loss brings. The story opens in a decaying mansion in the foothills of the Himalayas. Here we meet a retired judge, haunted by his past and clinging doggedly to the domestic rituals that punctuate his bleak existence. Sai, his orphaned grand-daughter has fallen in love with her tutor, despite their different backgrounds and ideals. The cook slaves at trying to please them both with ever-diminishing resources, while his heart is with his hapless son, Biju, in New York.
The narrative alternates between India and America and Desai, with great wisdom, explores the major contemporary issues of our time, including multiculturalism, economic inequality and terrorism. The seriousness of her themes is offset by the tender and wry humour of many of her secondary’ characters. Lola and Nomi, two elderly sisters who live close to the judge, are steeped in the traditions of the Raj and dedicate their lives to an obsolete idea of ‘Englishness’. Their neighbour, by contrast, is in love with all things American and many of their exchanges had us laughing out loud. The pain of exile is evoked wonderfully in the character of Biju who, burdened with his father’s expectations, tries to eke out a tenuous existence as an illegal immigrant.
Desai writes beautifully and the exuberance of her language perfectly reflects the fecundity of the surrounding landscape. She is an acute observer of human nature, conveying information succinctly with just the tiniest of details. As the spirit of nationalism begins to disrupt their post-colonial existence, the characters have to question their own identities and their place in the new order. What the author achieves so well in the novel is to highlight the humanity that connects us as opposed to the artificial constructs that divide us.
We meet again on Thursday 7th May when we will be discussing Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.
Withiel Book Circle – reading list
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