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Monday, June 16, 2008

Book Discussion: The Inheritance of Loss

This month my group tackled the 2006 Booker Prize winning novel The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. The novel is really more a character study and a mediation on Himalayan life, colonialization, globalization, peace and the elusiveness of justice. I know that sounds deep, but this novel also includes humor. The story moves around through time, but its present is during an uprising in a small Himalayan town during the late 1980s. The main players are a teenage girl orphan, Sai, her grandfather, the Judge, their cook (all living in a crumbling estate) and the cook's son, Biju, an illegal immigrant in NYC. The reader is invited into the intimacies of their lives, some of which these characters cannot even admit to themselves.

The first issue that came up with our group was whether or not they enjoyed reading the book. This I have to say, I was prepared for. Whenever we read a more challenging book, I try to begin by asking who liked it and who did not. Here we were about 60-40 for not liking it. To help begin the discussion, I started with those who did enjoy it. Those who liked reading this novel cited the introspective writing. Although it was some times hard to connect the pieces of the story, the writing captured the setting. Another reader who liked the book noted how it got to the issue and problems of immigrants in foreign countries better than anything she had read before.

Those in the group who did not enjoy reading the novel noted the way it was written as their main problem. It "flitted" around too much was a common complaint. Another participant felt that it reminded her of something she would have to read for school. Finally, another mentioned that it was depressing, but that she was glad to be made aware of the darker issues.

Although not everyone enjoyed reading the novel, all enjoyed the rest of the discussion that followed. And, all agreed that this novel did a great job highlighting injustice everywhere. One participant mentioned that this book wanted her to go join a march for something. Whether we like it or not, we need to know what is going on in the world, and this novel was a great introduction to what was for our group a new and complex culture.

I also want to include some of the group's comments on a few of the characters.

The Judge: It was noted that he is full of rage and anger; he was a perfect example of internalized racism.

Sai: As the outsider, Sai has the panoramic view in this novel, and many people mentioned wanting to hear more of her story. Another participant pointed out how similar her name is to the author's (Desai). We also ended our discussion talking about Sai's future. Some felt she would move on, but others were concerned she would be stuck in the Himalayas, over educated and bitter.

Biju: The group felt Biju was realistic. He was from a small town and was naive and innocent. One thing we all agreed on was that inclusion of his story helped us the draw connections between the immigrant struggle in India with the immigrant struggles in America.

Finally, the Cook: No matter how the group felt about the book, they all loved the cook. He is poor, but hopeful; he loves his son and Sai; the cook also helps to end the book on a hopeful note as he is reunited with his son.

There are many direction one can take in identifying readalikes for Desai's book. Reviews have mentioned Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie which also looks at the insurgency in the Himalayas. Writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, who explores the Indian and Bengali immigrant experience or Zadie Smith who looks at the outsider in the Western world are also good bets. Try Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize winner, The Interpreter of Maladies and Zadie Smith's award winning White Teeth. If you enjoyed the Indian perspective, try this link from Barnes and Nobel to similar works of Indian and South Asian Fiction. Works by Desai's famous mother, Anita Desai might also be of interest. Kathy suggested Fasting, Feasting. Finally, for a similar themed work, but which takes place in a different culture, try Half of a Yellow Sun by the Nigerian author Cimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

For nonfiction, of course you can find many books about immigration, the Himalayas, and India by turning to your local public library catalog. But at Berwyn, Kathy (whose group discussed this work a few months ago) suggests In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce and Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni.

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