Kiran Desai's extraordinary new novel manages to explore, with intimacy and insight, just about every contemporary international issue: globalization, multiculturalism, economic inequality, fundamentalism and terrorist violence … Though relieved by much humor, The Inheritance of Loss may strike many readers as offering an unrelentingly bitter view. But then, as Orhan Pamuk wrote soon after 9/11, people in the West are ‘scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world's population,’ which ‘neither magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom.’ This is the invisible emotional reality Desai uncovers as she describes the lives of people fated to experience modern life as a continuous affront to their notions of order, dignity and justice. We do not need to agree with this vision in order to marvel at Desai's artistic power in expressing it.
Fate would seem to have been very good to the retired judge, Jemubhai Patel, who slipped into the Indian Civil Service after abysmally low exam results, thanks to the prop of Indianization … It is to Desai’s credit that, despite his unremitting cruelties, the judge does not seem monstrous, only weak and pathetic. She achieves this not through empathy, or even sympathy—the man remains reprehensible throughout—but by animating politics and making it the villain … This is a catalog of defeats, and Desai is unwilling to let anyone off the hook, especially the reader, who is denied that other refuge of moral laziness: the possibility of sudden, enlightened character transformation … It is a rare novel that succeeds when every supposedly good idea in it fails, but Desai is a gorgeous writer, capable of pulling us along on a raft of sensuous images that are often beautiful, not because what they describe are inherently so, but because she has shown their naked truth.
The Inheritance of Loss takes place in Kalimpong, an Indian village in the eastern Himalayas on the border with Nepal. In the shadow of these great mountains and their ‘wizard phosphorescence,’ a handful of characters must find their own ways in a society alternately romancing its colonial past and trying to keep pace with a modernized future … If Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard established Desai as an expert storyteller, The Inheritance of Loss distinguishes her as a writer of note. The small canvas of Himalayan life, evocatively as it is wrought, is merely a jumping-off point. The picture Desai paints here is much broader, a deft and often witty commentary on cultural issues that are all too familiar in an interconnected world where immigration – and the accompanying blight of bigotry – have become an international norm.
Kiran Desai's second novel tackles the lingering effects of colonialism on two kinds of South Asian people: those who attempt to leave India and those who remain … Desai's grim imaginings are plainly designed to disturb and challenge complacent readers and to instill a sense of dislocation similar to that of her protagonists. But the force of her enterprise is diluted when her restlessness as a storyteller spills into impatience. Just as the reader begins to engage with a character, the narrative jumps to another time and place, another set of dire circumstances, making it difficult to develop any sort of uninterrupted sympathy … Desai makes clear her intention to expand her reach from the narrow boundaries of her first novel to the global arena where big-name novelists like Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith already confidently perform. In many ways, she has succeeded. The writing has a melancholy beauty here, especially in its sensuous evocations of the natural world.
It is populated by characters who are mostly either exiles, eccentrics, or both. It is a work full of color and comedy, even as it challenges all to face the same heart-wrenching questions that haunt the immigrant: Who am I? Where do I belong? … Nothing sours the warm heart at the center of this novel. Desai is sometimes compared to Salman Rushdie, and the energy and fecundity of imagination in her works do make them somewhat akin to his. But the tenderness in her novels is all her own … The story that Desai offers us includes a hard look at physical poverty, but that's not the only kind her characters come to recognize. No one in this book easily comes by the sense of belonging that all seem to crave.
The story ricochets between the two worlds, held together by Desai's sharp eyes and even sharper tongue. Her first book, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, was a lighthearted romp, a souffle of a book. This is a more substantial meal, taking on heavier issues of land and belonging, home and exile, poverty and privilege, and love and the longing for it … But eventually the novel ties its many threads together, and Desai builds her transcontinental romp about the pursuit of a ‘better life’ and the price it almost always exacts to a climax that is much darker than the rollicking tone it's written in. In the end, when she succeeds, it's as glorious as a view of Kanchenjunga, luminous in golden light.
In The Inheritance of Loss, Desai again sets her story in village India, leavening it with an equal measure of humor. But this second novel is broader in scope, peopled with a more diverse set of characters and shimmering with honesty and humanity … The family's idyllic life is shattered when Nepalese insurgents break into the house one night, seeking Jemubhai's hunting rifles and traumatizing everyone in the process. It is doubtful that the family will ever be able to return to its comfortable ways … This novel is finely accomplished in the way it makes connections between private lives and public events.
It is a big novel that stretches from India to New York; an ambitious novel that reaches into the lives of the middle class and the very poor; an exuberantly written novel that mixes colloquial and more literary styles; and yet it communicates nothing so much as how impossible it is to live a big, ambitious, exuberant life. Everything about it dramatises the fact that although we live in this mixed-up, messy, globalised world, for many people the dominant response is fear of change, based on a deep desire for security … The point of this novel, constantly brought home to us in small and big ways, is how individuals are always failing to communicate. Desai flicks from a failed telephone call to a failed marriage, a lost dog to lost parents, and the cumulative experience is of atomisation and thwarted yearning. I think this constant sense of disappointment is the reason why, although I admired this novel, I can't say I loved it.
This is a terrific novel! Read it! Why? First of all, there's the novel's generosity. Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss spans continents, generations, cultures, religions, and races … As events unfold, the novel alternates between Kalimpong and New York. At the same time, it shuttles back and forth between Sai's youth and that of her Anglophile grandfather, Jemu. Through Jemu, a Third World Horatio Alger, we experience the post-colonial era in all the cruelty of its old, ingrained hatreds and prejudices. Through Sai we experience the precarious present … The Inheritance of Loss offers all of the pleasures of traditional narrative in a form and a voice that are utterly fresh.
One major strand in this beautifully composed novel follows the New York City adventures of Biju, an immigrant worker from northeastern India. The second narrative strand takes us to Biju's home territory, the district of Kalimpong, where his father works as a cook for a retired British-educated Indian magistrate and the judge's inquisitive granddaughter Sai … While Sai immerses herself in her books, we get a look at the world around her, where indigenous Nepalese exiles, the cheap labor of the region, rise up to call for an independent state within a state … This story of exiles at home and abroad, of families broken and fixed, of love both bitter and bittersweet – you can read it almost as Sai read her Bronte, with your heart in your chest, inside the narrative and the narrative inside you.
Desai employs a kaleidoscopic technique to illuminate fractured lives in Kalimpong, Manhattan and India, past and present. She finds a comic bounce in Biju’s troubles even as Kalimpong turns grimmer; young rebels die, the police torture the innocent, Sai and Gyan’s romance dissolves into recriminations and Mutt is stolen. We are left with two images of love: the hateful judge, now heartbroken, beseeching a chaotic world for help in retrieving Mutt, and the returning Biju, loyal son, loyal Indian, hurtling into his father’s arms. Less a compelling narrative than a rich stew of ironies and contradictions. Desai’s eye for the ridiculous is as keen as ever.