Magazine article The Spectator

Life on the Brink

Magazine article The Spectator

Life on the Brink

Article excerpt

THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS by Kiran Desai Hamish Hamilton, £16.99, pp. 324, ISBN 0241143489

The book opens on a note of deceptively light-hearted inconsequence: an isolated, decaying house in the foothills of the Himalayas, a 16-year-old Indian girl reading about giant squid in an old National Geographic magazine and yearning for her handsome Nepalese tutor.

Her grand-father, a retired judge whose affections are reserved for the pet dog snoring at his feet, plays chess against himself, examines the tea tray and berates the cook for the absence of scones. The mood would seem to be Merchant-Ivory. But, unseen, boys are creeping through the undergrowth towards the house with a very different sort of heritage on their minds. One carries a gun. Everything is about to change.

Kiran Desai's second novel takes as its point of departure the Nepali insurgency of the 1980s, when frustrated demands for a separate state of Gorkhaland erupted into riots and terrorism, with the town of Kalimpong under siege, and the Indian army called in to restore - with savagery - a version of law and order.

The story moves constantly between the (1988) present and several pasts; many life stories ripple beneath the surface of this complex narrative - the grand-daughter and her young maths tutor, poised uneasily between his own family's poverty and the easeful life of those his education has placed him among; the judge, withered and embittered, whose Cambridge education and adoration for British manners and mores crippled his emotional being; the sadness of his child-bride and her terrible end; and the judge's cook, whose son is working illegally in the filthy kitchens of downmarket eateries in New York, trying and failing to claw a way into the dubious affluence of the modern world. …

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