THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS by Karen Desai

Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book-'Em ...take our poll!

The Inheritance of Loss (November 15, 2007) The Inheritance of Loss has garnered a Booker Prize, glowing reviews, and critical acclaim. It is author Karen Desai's telling of the lives of multiple characters in an isolated region of northeast India, Kalimpong, in the late 1980's. The British trained Indian judge, his convent raised granddaughter, their lower caste Hindu cook, a young Nepali tutor, and anglophile neighbors' lives play out amidst the unrest and rebellion of local Indian-Nepalese seeking a homeland, Gorkhaland. As well, readers look at the life Biju, the cook's son, is leading as an illegal immigrant in restaurant kitchens of New York City.

The overwhelmingly positive reviews did not prepare Book-'Em's members for the difficulty most of us experienced reading this novel. Desai's storytelling, which goes back and forth across time, an ocean and points of view, detracted from the flow of the narrative. Her writing and language is vivid and exquisite yet some tired of the detailed descriptions. "The style of writing is complex like India, but its beauty is a contrast to the ugliness of the India it is portraying." said one member. Another felt that the non-translated Indian words were an obstacle. Technique aside, the sense of sadness and hopelessness burdened many of our readers.

The Inheritance of Loss has complexity, depth and scope. In discussion we ranged from colonialism to globalization, materialism, immigration, class, the myriad prejudices highlighted on these pages, the concept of being a victim, and the roots of fundamentalism. Phew! This selection sparked thoughtfulness and very engaged discussion. The group asked more questions than we were able to answer. "It made you open your eyes and look at these issues……but they are overwhelming,"sighed one reader.

A universal aspect of Desai's characters is that "they wound up not fitting in anywhere." This is evidenced in Biju's life as an unskilled immigrant but also true of the "successful" immigrants who employ him. Living between two worlds is also manifest in Gyan, the Nepalese tutor, and in the anglophile Indians. "I was struck by the 'hangover' of colonialism, the way it made Indians not feel at 'home' in their own country decades after the British left!" was a telling comment.

Each of us was asked to describe the novel's tone in one word. "Bitterness" and "hopelessness" were the resounding responses. Members commented: "I was so angry at the end. You can only take so much hopelessness. I wanted just one person to thrive!"; "Just too much sadness. It's all loss…..and probably realistic."

The Inheritance of Loss proved an excellent selection for Book-'Em. Appreciation for the read and an understanding of and a perspective on the novel were all enhanced, enriched and magnified by the process of dissecting a complex work, reacting to it, having to articulate one's feelings and thoughts, and building on ideas within a group's dynamic. Members might be wary of making a personal recommendation to an individual, but collectively, we would encourage book groups to take on The Inheritance of Loss.

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