"The Inheritance of Loss" by Kiran Desai
Grove / Atlantic, 2006, 324 pages
Review by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen
Kiran Desai's second novel (after Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard) earned high
accolades including a Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award. The Inheritance of
Loss examines weighty sociological themes like colonialism, revolution, and immigration. To
do so, Desai shuttles readers back and forth from a mountain village in Nepal to the back rooms
and basements of New York City restaurants.
The most engaging and immediate storyline involves Sai, a teenaged orphan raised in an
English boarding school who has come to live with her grandfather. In her grandfather's
decrepit, isolated house in the shadow of Mount Kanchenjunga, Sai falls in love with an educated
but lower-class boy hired as her tutor.
While Sai's grandfather is immersed in his own memories, Sai is mostly looked after by
the grandfather's devoted cook. No one in the house suspects that Sai's love, Gyan, has been
swept up in revolutionary spirit and involved himself with a loosely-organized, lawless band of
angry young men who call themselves the Gorkha Liberation Army. The rebellion, which Desai
paints as stemming from an angry response to poverty rather than a noble quest for equality,
suddenly reaches Sai's doorstep.
Gyan's foolish betrayal of his young loverñinforming his friends that Sai's house contains
firearms and liquor and has no young men to guard it-- is not revealed immediately, though the
frightening home invasion happens at the beginning of the novel, which then works its way back.
This was a slight misstep on Desai's part; this scene is the most intense of the novel and would
have been even more chilling had we known Gyan was responsible. That early on in the book,
the reader hasn't yet learned to care for Sai or for the cook: the stakes would've been higher for
the reader had Desai waited. It is the most engaging and well-written part of the novel, marred
by an unnecessary, offbeat bit of timeplay.
Structurally, Desai also loses points messing with unnecessary subplots. The main
subplot follows the tribulations of the cook's son, Biju, an illegal immigrant in New York City.
Biju works in run-down kitchens, sleeping in basement apartments overcrowded with other
illegals. He finds no reconciliation with his father's expectations of life in America. His father's
misguided belief in the American dream is obvious in his letters to Biju, in which he implores his
son to help the sons-and-daughters of neighbors as they arrive to New York illegally by the day.
Biju avoids "the tribe,"--of course he has no work for them, no food for them, and no where for
them to sleep. The author's pointñthat it's no fun being an illegal alienñis clear. To top it off,
Biju is robbed by soldiers upon his return home, stripped of his meager savings as well as his
American clothes. It's an in-your-face reminder that Biju has failed to absorb anything positive
from his time in America.
The author also offers occasional portraits of Sai's grandfather as he examines his own
past; first as an impoverished child, then a haughty young man being educated in England, then a
feared Judge and abusive husband to his wife-by-arranged-marriage. The Judge is a frustrating
character who never repents his misdeeds--only that they come back to him threefold. His
comeuppance is, sadly, at the expense of his gentle dog, Mutt, so the reader can't even glory in it.
Bouncing between three major storylines is difficult enough. Unfortunately, Desai didn't
stop there. Biju's friend Saeed-- a ladies' man from Zanzibar --has his own tales to tell. Much
time is spent observing an elderly, upper-class pair of sisters who live in Sai's village as they get
ousted from their home by revolutionaries. There is also Uncle Potty and father Booty who
accidentally run afoul of the law, plus a handful of other minor characters who frequently pull us
away from more layered stories.
There is a fine line between creating tension by interrupting a narrative at a crucial
pointñthe cliffhanger effectñand allowing a plot to lose momentum. Balancing big themes with
multiple storylines takes a mature writer. Desai mostly succeeds, but a more seasoned writer
might have excelled.
To Desai's credit, she is ambitious and never afraid to take chances in her writing,
playing with poetic form or even shopping-list style passages. When she is successful, she can
deliver a beautiful knockout of a line: "They took the toy train and went to the Darjeeling zoo
and viewed in their free, self-righteous, modern love, the unfree and ancient bars, behind which
lived a red panda, ridiculously solemn for being such a madly beautiful thing, chewing his
bamboo leaves as carefully as a bank clerk doing numbers."
When her writing falters, the result can seem jejune: "...the light shining through thick
bamboo in starry, jumping chinks, imparting the feeling of liquid shimmering." Nonetheless,
Desai is a novelist to watch, carrying her readers to an exotic emotional landscape. Chances are
good that she will continue to grow as a writer, and whatever she writes after Inheritance may
well be her opus magnum.