Red Wheelbarrow Book Reviews
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The Inheritance of Lossby Kiran Desai
Hamish Hamilton Ltd
Winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2006
We are in Kalimpong, an East Indian Hill Station in the mid l980's. Kalimpong is set among the foothills of the Himalayas at an altitude of 1250 meters in the northern state of Bengal, India. We need to know a little of the history of this part of the world to understand the story, to value the multicultural weight, to feel the pull of language on a people who speak bengali, hindi, nepali and of course, english, the language of both power and snobbism.
The novel deals with every contemporary international issue: globalisation, multiculturalism, poverty, inequality and terrorist violence.
We have Sai, the orphaned teenage granddaughter of an impossible, ill-humored retired judge english educated and utterly cantankerous. Gyan, the girl's tutor and lover, a Gurkha of Nepali descent who is seduced by the terrorists who provide him with value for his seemingly valueless existence. The judge's cook and finally the cook's son Biju who leaves for New York to become rich complete the cast.
These five central characters bring us the story of the legacy of impotence and humiliation called "The Inheritance of Loss". We have three interlocked stories : the story of the judge whose background of poverty, marriage, and finally an english eduction brings to life the post colonial era with all its attendant hatreds, jealousies and prejudices. the story of Sai and her romantic and impossible love set in the present among the conflicts of loyalty aroused by crafty and manipulative politicians who play with ethnic rivalries, and finally the tale of Biju, the cook's son who lives the illegal immigrant's life in New York under grotesque conditions.
"India was too messy for justice", Desai comments. "What was a country but the idea of it? She thought of India as concept, a hope, or a desire. How often could you attack it before it crumbled?"
"There they were, the most commonplace of them, those quite mismatched with the larger- than-life questions, caught up in the mythic battles of past vs. present, justice vs. injustice - the most ordinary swept up in extraordinary hatred, because extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event."
I have left to the end the fact that this is a beautifully written book, wonderfully descriptive of both the land and the people. The mountain, the mists, the river are as important as the people in this tale. The reader feels the smells, the views, the poverty, the isolation of the landscape and yet the deep connection between the worlds described.
A beautiful piece of work.