This is the third in an occasional series of posts on whether the winners and finalists for major book awards deserved their honors.
Title: The Inheritance of Loss. By Kiran Desai. Grove, 357 pp., $14, paperback.
What it is: A novel about a cynical Indian judge and his orphaned granddaughter who live with their dog and cook in a Himalayan village that sinks into violence and terror in the 1980s when Nepalese insurgents “demand their own country, or at least their own state.”
Winner of … the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and Man Booker Prize (formerly the Booker Prize).
How much I read: About 60 pages (the first two chapters and the last eight.)
Why I stopped: Desai evokes deftly the “voluptuous green” terrain of Himalayan foothills awarm black cobras as thick as a biscuit jar. But I agree with Lee Langley, who wrote in the Spectator that her Indians come across “as figures in a landscape rather than characters we are gripped by,” except for the cook and his son. (“Life on the Brink,” The Spectator www.specatator.co.uk, Sept. 9, 2006.) Because her novel involves an orphan and her grandfather living in isolation in the mountains, I also kept thinking, irrationally, that it read like a postcolonial Heidi as envisioned by Salman Rushie, which is unfair not just to Desai and Rushdie but to Johanna Spyri.
Was this one of those book awards that made you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Or if the publisher had pornographic videos of all of them? No. But the ten chapters I read were no match for such great Booker winners as Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.
Best line in the pages I read: “Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss?”
Worst line in the pages I read: “Chuckling, the boys stepped off the veranda and out into the fog carrying the two trunks.”
Reading group guide: The paperback edition includes a grim three-page reading group that reads as though it had been written by an SAT examiner. The “questions” often bark orders at you beginning, “Explain,” “Discuss” or “Compare and contrast … ” The author of this one seems unaware that many people go to book clubs to have fun, not to feel as though they’re being grilled by an eighth-grade English teacher. Masochists can find the guide online at www.groveatlantic.com (though the page for The Inheritance of Loss is, at this writing, out of date and does not mention that the novel won the NBCC fiction award more than two months ago).
Published: January 2006 (Atlantic Monthly press hardcover) and August 2006 (Grove paperback.)
Links: See the March 7 post on www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com for an interview with Desai and other posts on the site for information on her NBCC fiction award.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.