Author: Kiran Desai, 2006.
Genre: Period Fiction (1980s). Indian Literature. Literary.
Other Details: Paperback. 324 pages.
This 2006 Man Booker winner is set in the mid-1980s and moves between the dual locations of India and the USA. It is the first of three novels I read this autumn, selected by reading groups, that deal with the issues of illegal immigration, economic inequality and racial prejudice.
In the town of Kalimpong at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas lives an embittered old judge who wants nothing more than to retire in peace. When his orphaned teenage granddaughter, Sai, arrives on his doorstep change is inevitable. Meanwhile his cook's son, Biju, is living in New York City bouncing from one menial restaurant job to another, trying to stay ahead of the US immigration services. Biju's experiences are paralleled by the judge's memories of studying in England in the 1940s. In India, chaos looms as an Indian-Nepali insurgency grows and Sai finds that her tentative romance with her Nepali maths tutor, Gyan, is threatened by their conflicting political interests.
For such a short novel it is extremely rich in ideas and hosts a large cast of characters. It tackles a range of issues including multiculturalism, fundamentalism, inequality, racial prejudice and globalisation. It does also address themes of love, duty and regret. Although the narrative is fairly bleak throughout, there are also moments of humour often provided by the small incidents in its characters daily lives.
When the novel won the Man Booker, it was subject to threats of book burning by residents of Kalimpong. Although not strictly autobiographical, Desai does have a personal history with the region and admitted that elements were close to her own family's story.
Overall I found this a complex and beautifully written novel that didn't shy away from examining racial and other prejudices as they exist within diverse cultures. However, I found it a novel that was easy to admire for its depth and the important issues it addressed but proved hard to love. As a reading group selection it generated a lively discussion on its issues, style and various characters.
This novel was selected in 2009 for The Guardian Book Club: 'The Inheritance of Loss' - Book Club Page.