If I wanted to give a habitual science fiction reader a novel that would reinforce all their prejudices about the world beyond the ghetto walls, I don’t think I could do much better than to give them a copy of The Inheritance of Loss. Kiran Desai’s second novel starts well enough: the first chapter, with its evocation of a mist-shrouded house in the northeastern Himalayas, builds a world (in exactly the way a good sf novel does, in fact) by carefully layering observation on incident. In the foreground is Sai, 17, reading National Geographic, musing on love and her affair with her maths tutor, Gyan; in the background are a judge and his cook, both stripped of names (except when we get access to their thoughts, later). It is the start of 1986, a few months before the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front organises a demonstration calling for a separate state (the region, we are told, “had always been a messy map”, 9); a few months before two years of disruption and violence. There is a symptom of the troubles to come: a gang of boys come to the house and steal the judge’s guns. The incident is troubling and tense.
A few days and two hundred pages later, a drunk is accused of the theft, arrested and beaten. In between and afterwards there is relatively little present-tense action; the focus is on a succession of elegantly interleaved flashbacks. This structure is actually the best thing about the book, although for Desai to highlight one character’s foolishness by having her express a preference for “Old-fashioned books […] Not the new kind of thing, no beginning, no middle, no end, just a thread of … free-floating plasma” (217) is perhaps a little too knowing for my taste. We dip in and out of the lives of the characters we’ve met, and a few more we come to know, and occasionally take a trip to America, where the cook’s son, Biju, is scrounging a living. For most of its length, this latter strand is extremely effective: every chapter in the novel is a collage of short scenes, most only a few paragraphs long, and the cut-and-paste effect suits the unsettled nature of Biju’s life. He’s squeezed from one to another New York kitchen, every kitchen equally grubby, equally detailed, and equally stuffed to the gills with migrant workers wrapped up in their own schemes and rivalries. Biju himself is consistently dazzled by the world — “How,” he wonders, “had he learned nothing growing up?” (22) — and his life is dismayingly credible; it certainly highlights, for example, the frictionless nature of a not-dissimilar migration in Hari Kunzru’s Transmission.
It’s back in the subcontinent, with the other characters, that the troubles with the novel set in. The beauty to which Desai’s prose aspires is a civilised beauty: long, languid sentences, gentle and descriptive. Sometimes it works; too often, to my mind, it feels overworked. Of Sai and Gyan’s courtship, which starts during tutorials, Desai writes, “how delicious the pretense of objective study, miraculous how it could eat up the hours.” Fine so far. But then: “as they eliminated the easily revealable and exhausted propriety, the unexamined portions of their anatomies exerted a more severely distilled potential” (125). This is, perhaps, an attempt to recast their courtship in the physical-science terms Gyan is teaching Sai, but it seems to me far too coy, far too self-aware to take seriously. Later, a character “traversed along flat main roads” (181): traversed? Really? Could he not, more specifically, walk or run or ride or drive? And earlier, a mother having bid her son farewell “was weeping because she had not estimated the imbalance between the finality of goodbye and the briefness of the last moment” (36): does that really get to the heart of a mother’s grief, or is it — as I can’t help thinking — just a long-winded way of stating the obvious? Worse still is some of the dialogue, notably some of the exchanges between Gyan and Sai. Here is one during a rumbling argument:
She yawned again, elaborately like a lion, letting it bloom forward. Then he did also, a meager yawn he tried to curb and swallow.
“Bored by physics?” she asked, encouraged by the apparent reconciliation.
“No. Not at all.”
“Why are you yawning then?”
“BECAUSE I’M BORED TO DEATH BY YOU, THAT’S WHY.”
Stunned silence. (163)
Stunned silence from Sai, at least; snickering from this reader, at such a spectacularly inept — and jarring, in context — depiction of late-teen sulkiness. To be fair, Gyan is not the only character who gets to speak in block capitals. Later on, for instance, we get this
“WHAT ARE YOU SAYING????!!!” the judge yelled. (319)
He’s drunk, of course, and has every right to be angry, but I can’t help thinking that if a writer needs to resort to block capitals and italics and eleventy-one style punctuation to make that point clear then their actual words aren’t doing as much work as they should be. (Or at the very least, they don’t need to tell us that the person talking in block capitals and italics with eleventy-one style punctuation is yelling.)
Maybe I’m being too harsh: The Inheritance of Loss is a very inward-looking novel, with far more internal monologues and passages of description than exchanges of dialogue, which despite the rough patches mentioned above plays to Desai’s strengths. Here is Gyan falling in with the GNLF, just a few pages before the exchange of dialogue above:
As he floated through the market, Gyan had a feeling of history being wrought, its wheels churning under him, for the men were behaving as if they were being featured in a documentary of war, and Gyan could not help but look on the scene already from the angle of nostalgia, the position of a revolutionary. But then he was pulled out of the feeling, by the ancient and usual scene, the worried shopkeepers watching from their monsoon-stained grottos. Then he shouted along with the crowd, and the very mingling of his voice with largeness and lustiness seemed to create a relevancy, an affirmation he’d never felt before, and he was pulled back into the making of history. (157)
This, I think, does convey the tentative fervour of a youth desperate to live a life that signifies: Gyan floating, not walking (or traversing), torn between his longing and the immediacy of the real, that “lustiness” tellingly close to “an affirmation he’d never felt before”: good stuff. But it’s immediately followed by ruminations of a kind repeated by almost every character in the novel at one time or another, on the desire for and impossibility of escape, “free from family demands and the built-up debt of centuries.” Which leads to another reservation.
For the characters in The Inheritance of Loss, escape is impossible and misery is birthright. Sai’s parents — before they die — are filled with the same loneliness as their daughter; the son whose mother was bidding farewell earlier in this review botches his goodbye, and we learn that “Never again would he know love for a human being that wasn’t adulterated by another, contradictory emotion” (37). (The son grows up to be the judge, arranged into a loveless marriage that descends into rape and other abuses.) The cook is an old man with no fulfillment in his own life, desperate that his son do better than he did; this pressure is eventually Biju’s undoing. Sai’s tutor before Gyan is Noni, a spinster who “never had love at all” (68). And so on, for the entire cast. It’s an old story: “Certain moves made long ago,” we are told, “had produced all of them” (199). They are, if you like, variations on an absence of dignity: children, criminals, and buffoons. And too often that’s all they are — or at least the rest is hidden, the civilised sheen of Desai’s prose obscuring the extent of the violence done to their lives by circumstance.
It is not entirely surprising to me that the inhabitants of the real Kalimpong have objected to their counterparts’ portrayal in the book. The cast of The Inheritance of Loss are buffeted and bewildered by the world, with no initiative to speak of, nor (apparently) any capacity to learn; quite often they’re not even paying attention. Sai and Gyan completely miss “the important protest”, which is to say they miss the defining moment of the novel’s historical context. Whatever my reservations about the generosity with which a book like, say, Geoff Ryman’s The King’s Last Song treats its characters, it’s hard not to prefer such an approach to one that ultimately comes to feel capriciously mean. Desai tries her best to convince us that her characters are “just ordinary humans in ordinary opaque boiled-egg light, without grace, without revelation” (259), and that this justifies their fatalism. But the litany of misfortunes that make up the book’s final fifty pages verges on parody, manipulative in the extreme but too obviously controlled to really sting; imagine I ARE SERIOUS BOOK stamped on the cover and you’ll be thinking along the right lines.
It’s not that Desai scrupulously avoids offering an answer, or answers, to the problems of global inequality that gives me trouble — to do otherwise would arguably be presumptuous, and she mines good material from her stance, such as one character’s painful realisation that he can only live a Western life by cutting off his countrymen, “or they would show up reproachful, pointing out to him the lie that he had become” (306). But The Inheritance of Loss denies even the possibility of meaningful change. Over and above the inconsistent loquaciousness of the prose, the near-absence of narrative drive, and the passivity of the characters (a consequence, I can’t help thinking, of the book’s ideologicial fixedness), this is what I expect would stick in most sf readers’ craws. And rightly. Sai’s ultimate epiphany — “The simplicity of what she’d been taught wouldn’t hold. Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that this narrative belonged only to herself” (323) — is pitifully empty, not just because any half-awake reader will have got there at least a couple of hundred pages earlier, if not before they ever open the book, but because Desai has so thoroughly drummed home that there’s nothing Sai can do to change her fate. All Sai’s achieved is to wake up to the same awareness that the rest of the book’s characters have been struggling with: her life does not belong to herself, because the West distorts and robs all those who come into contact with it, now and forever: the end.