The Inheritance of Loss
By Kiran Desai
HAMISH HAMILTON pounds 16.99 (326pp) pounds 15.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
February, 1986: in a small town in the hills of India, teenage Sai, living with her grandfather, a retired judge, dreams of a romance with her maths teacher, Gyan. In New York, Biju, son of the judge's drunken cook, is struggling to make an illicit life in the cellars and basements of the city. And in India, among many upheavals, an insurgency is gathering: "the Indian-Nepalese this time, fed up with being treated like a minority in the place where they were a majority". Borders, a colonial legacy, are examined' hypothetical maps redrawn. The judge's family, and their circle of oddly named eccentrics, are under threat, their persons insulted, their property requisitioned. Then Gyan rediscovers his Nepalese heritage, and joins the insurgents, bursting the bubble of Sai's adolescent fantasies.
Nationalism, migration, varieties of belonging: in her hugely ambitious second novel, Kiran Desai gives these grand themes an entirely new spin, unearthing their sources in earlier decades. Is it best to stay in a small place, "the sweet drabness of home"? If so, do we have a right to that territory, and who can stake a claim? These questions shape the destinies of Desai's characters: "the most commonplace of them, those quite mismatched with the larger-than- life questions, caught up in the mythic battles of past and present, justice vs injustice - the most ordinary swept up in extraordinary hatred, because extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event."
The novel's elaborate structure takes the sometimes dizzy reader into a world that seems both contemporary and timeless, familiar and unpredictable. Chapters alternate between India and the US, juxtaposing the slow pace of life in the hills with the frantic movements of an illegal migrant's existence, maintaining a degree of suspense until discontinuous narratives collide.
Biju's experiences in America are detailed in linear …