Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Inheritance of Loss

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Most of the time, if I don’t like a book, I won’t even bother telling you about it. This book, The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai, is an exception for one reason – it IS worth reading.

Inheiritance of Loss showed up on the book club reading list for the year, and I ordered it. I read the cover when the book came, and it didn’t sound that good to me, so I read other books instead. The next time it came to mind was when a friend, reading the book, said she was having trouble with it, and asked me if I had started it. This friend is a READER, and a thinker. It caught my attention that she would have problems reading a book, so I decided to give it a try.

This is a very uncomfortable book. The characters live in the shadow of the Himalayan mountains. The most sympathetic character is a young orphaned girl, sent to live with her grandfather. With each chapter, we learn more about all the characters, how they came to be here, what they think, what their lives have looked like.

The author of this book has a very sour look on life. She has snotty things to say about every character. You can almost feel her peering around the corner, eyes slit with evil intent. She is that vicious neighbor who comes by and never says anything nice about anybody, and when you see her talking with your neighbor, you get the uneasy feeling she could be saying something mean about you, and she probably is.

The book covers a wide range of topics – Indian politics, Ghurka revolts, English colonization, Indian emigration to the US and UK, everyday vanities and pride in petty things, how people destroy their own lives, how people can be cruel to one another, oh it’s a great read (yes, that is sarcasm).

At the same time, this vicious unwelcome neighbor has a sharp eye for detail. You may not like what she is telling you, but you keep listening, because you can learn important tidbits of information from her. In my case, I learned a lot about how life is lived in a small mountain village in India, the struggles of illegals in America and how class lines are drawn, ever so finely, when people live together. I learned a lot about the legacy of colonialism, and the creep of globalization. This unwelcome neighbor has a sharp tongue, always complaining, and yet . . . some of her complaints have merit.

I don’t believe there was a single redeeming episode in the book. There was not a paragraph to feel good about. I am glad to be finished with the book – but, yes, I finished it, I didn’t just set it aside in disgust, or give it away without finishing.

Here is the reason I am telling you about this book – as uncomfortable as this book is to read, I have the feeling, upon finishing, that ideas and images from this book will stick with me for a long time. I have the feeling that it contributes to my greater understanding of how things work, how people think differently from other people, and on what levels we are very much the same.

Here is an excerpt from the book, at a time during which the Judge is a young Indian, studying in England:

The new boarding house boasted several rooms for rent, and here, among the other lodgers, he was to find his only friend in England: Bose.

They had similar inadequate clothes, similar forlornly empty rooms, similar poor native’s trunks. A look of recognition had passed between them at first sight, but also the assurance that they wouldn’t reveal one another’s secrets, not even to each other.

. . . Together they punted clumsily down the glaceed river to Grantchester and had tea among the jam sozzled wasps just as you were supposed to, enjoying themselves (but not really) as the heavy wasps fell from flight into their laps with a low battery buzz.

They had better luck in London, where they watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, avoided the other Indian students at Veeraswamy’s, ate shepherd’s pie instead, and agreed on the train home that Trafalgar Square was not quite up to British standards of hygiene – all those defecating pigeons, one of which had done a masala-colored doodle on Bose. It was Bose who showed Jemubhai what records to buy for his new gramophone: Caruso and Gigli. He also corrected his pronunciation: Jheelee, not Giggly. . . .

This it was that the judge eventually took revenge on his early confusions, his embarrassments gloved in something called “keeping up standards,” his accent behind a mask of a quiet. He found he began to be mistaken for something he wasn’t – a man of dignity. This accidental poise became more important than any other thing. He envied the English. He loathed Indians. He worked at being English with the passion of hatred and for what he would become, he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians both.

I consider this a review, and not particularly a recommendation. I read the book, I finished the book and I learned from the book. I didn’t like the book. I recommend it only as a challenge, for people who like to read and stretch their minds in new directions.

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January 13, 2008 - Posted by | Books, Bureaucracy, Communication, Community, Cooking, Cross Cultural, Fiction, Financial Issues, Friends & Friendship, Generational, Hygiene, India, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Marriage, Mating Behavior, Poetry/Literature, Political Issues, Relationships, Social Issues, Women's Issues

10 Comments »

  1. This is true even among Indians living in Kuwait. What is surprising is that few of them do take up the challenge recognize that they don’t have to live in that way.

    Her mother(Anita Desai) is also an author!

    Comment by Joel | January 13, 2008 | Reply

  2. ” I read the book , I finished the book and I learned from the book “.. I din’t like the book… !!!!” you said it all!!! I had the same feeling ..it was a strange book.

    Comment by Hayfa | January 13, 2008 | Reply

  3. Holy Smokes! Joel, I just checked on Amazon; Anita Desai has written SO many books, and I have never read any of them!

    I was telling my husband, I read a really gripping book about India, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and I really liked it, have never forgotten it. I liked the characters, I wanted them to survive and succeed. I felt like the author liked his characters. What I objected to in this book was the author’s tone of superiority and her contempt for her own creations!

    Hayfa – I wouldn’t have read the book at all were it not for your comment. Now I totally understand – you were right! I AM glad I read the book. I think it is something in the author’s attitude, maybe?

    Comment by intlxpatr | January 13, 2008 | Reply

  4. I am glad I visited your blog, because strangely enough, I am about to finish a book, and I was wondering what would be my next! I will put it part of my book list.

    Speaking of books, I am almost finishing ‘The Kite Runner’, if you haven’t read it, then I recommend it.

    Comment by Hope | January 13, 2008 | Reply

  5. I read the inheritance of loss last august.. it’s a great book, but it tired me out… I literally took a deep breath and a long walk after putting it aside. The whole concept behind Desai’s style of writing is somewhat poetic.. a little hard to digest.. and following 2 different threads at once.. OOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooh.. I just glad it’s all read and over. Although the writing style is intense and genius (just my opinion!) no-one I know has had something nice to say about the book’s storyline.

    Comment by machelle | January 13, 2008 | Reply

  6. OOOHHHH Hope! Not only have I read Kite Runner, I read the follow up, A Thousand Splendid Suns. They are both outstanding books. You live inside the character’s skins! You make their mistakes, you pay their prices, you grieve, you share moments of joy. He is a brilliant author!

    Comment by intlxpatr | January 14, 2008 | Reply

  7. Machelle, I am happy to see you here! You are right, Inheritance takes a while to digest. I’m still working on it, but that is also, as you said, part of it’s genius. I am not used to an author who doesn’t like her characters, and that is off-putting, but it IS a book that sticks with you, so . . . I need to keep digesting! ;-)

    Comment by intlxpatr | January 14, 2008 | Reply

  8. I am new to your blog, recommended by Jewaira. I hope you won’t mind my comment on this book. It seems that although some writers are gifted with words and gifted at capturing the descriptions of people or events, they have difficulty imagining great stories. Kiran Desai is a gifted writer. Her descriptions are far more elegant than those of most writers. Indeed, the elegance of her descriptions is almost mesmerizing. However, her story lacks interest. Her characters seem to drift and her story drifts. It seems that the title of the book is accurate — the characters are a bunch of losers who go on losing right to the end of the book. Finally, we just don’t care what happens to them. Surely she could have imagined more interesting characters and a more interesting story. The title of this book could just as easily have been, “Everyone’s a Loser”.

    Comment by Phantom Man | January 14, 2008 | Reply

  9. Phantom Man, I am so glad you came by. I read your comment and I thought “if he doesn’t teach literature, he should be!” What great insights! And you are right, her descriptions leap poetically, elegantly – and then she drops us with a thud.

    If you were teaching literature, the students would listen!

    Comment by intlxpatr | January 14, 2008 | Reply

  10. [...] just after I finished Inheritance of Loss I started in with this book, and it was the second book I will not recommend to [...]

    Pingback by Berry and The Alexandrian Link « Here There and Everywhere | January 17, 2008 | Reply


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