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on 14 May 2006
Taking place in New York and in India, Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss is a chaotic, maddening and fully realized slice-of-Indian life as seen through four very different protagonists. Set against a background of recurring Nepalese civil unrest and beautifully illustrating the indissoluble bonds of love and family, The Inheritance of Loss is a cautionary tale of globalization and the effects it can have on individuals and on communities.

Retired Indian Civil Service Judge "Jemu" Jemubhai lives a quiet life in Kalimpong; a small picaresque rural town nestled at the base of the Himalayas. Jemu is an aging and bitter man who has secluded himself in his ramshackle and gated compound with only his dog Mutt and his cook for company. Plagued by the mistakes of his past, Jemu is surprised to hear that Sai, his orphaned sixteen-year-old granddaughter will be coming to stay with him.

Sai is a westernized Indian brought up by English nuns. Seen as a type of "estranged Indian living in India," the arrival of Sai is a godsend to Jemu, who considers himself severely and unadulteratingly anglophile. All his life, Jemu has worked at being English with a passion; as a young man from limited means, he even went England, joining the Indian Civil Service, and returned home to live a pampered existence, exorcising a kind of colonial judgment over his own country.

Jemu's position of power has long gone, frittered away in years of misanthropy and cynicism. Now he spends his days staring at his chessboard, burning the memory of his beginnings, experiencing the sweet relief of recalling his life. In the interim, his charming granddaughter has fallen in love with her math tutor, Gyan. Gyan, born of poverty - his family's house still made of mud with a thatch roof - feels out-of-place and intimidated by Jemu and Sai's aristocratic and very English ways.

Fed up with the fact that Indian-Nepalese are being treated like the minority in a place where they are the majority, Gyan ultimately turns his back on Sai's privileged life. Intent to scream victory over oppression, Gyan raises his fist to authority, eventually connecting with a crowd of angry ethnic Nepalese insurrectionists.

Meanwhile, young Biju, the son of Jemu's cook, ekes out an existence as an undocumented immigrant in New York. Stumbling from restaurant to restaurant and from one low-paid job to another, Biju imagines what life would be like with "a sofa, TV and a bank account," as he tries to desperately to buy into the American dream.

Instead the reality is far from dreamlike, it's "a whole world of basement kitchens," living so intensely with others, only to have them disappear overnight, one giant "shadow class" of men condemned to movement, who end up leaving for other jobs, towns, are deported and return home, or change their names.

Alternating between Biju's struggle to survive in New York, and the steadily gathering insurgency of men and guns in the hills of Kalimpong, Desai portrays a world constantly on the move and on the cusp of globalization. Her characters are desperately trying to cope with a rapidly modernizing world, refusing to cast off the strictures of colonialism, struggling with loss and poverty, and with the trappings of social class.

Biju and his father's once easy relationship has become complicated by distance, the cook mistakenly believing that only Biju can help other immigrant boys survive in the United States. Jemu's nature is to cling urgently to his memories, thinking of the time he and his best friend studied in England and faced the racial taunts of classmates.

Sai and Gyan have difficulty negotiating the complications of love, friendship and their polarizing political principles. Gyan ends up judging Sai for her connivance and her loyalty to the social class she's accidentally been born into.

Desai's themes are complex and universal. Her characters are mired in a type of self-hatred, yet are also trying to create a life of meaning and pride, forced to live in a country where the English have arguably done great harm, the result of "the colonial enterprise of sticking your flag on what was not yours." And her vision is often cynical of the Indians, whom she sees as slaves, running after the West in a world where "America is in the business of buying everything up."

The Inheritance of Loss is indeed a love story between a boy and a girl, between a father and his son, and a grandfather and his granddaughter; it's where empathy and compassion often defines the quality of family relationships. More importantly, the novel is about a certain group of people who are unmoored and somewhat at a loss in the modern world, where the onset of globalization doesn't necessarily guarantee prosperity for them. Mike Leonard May 06.
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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 September 2006
It took a while, but I've finally finished The Inheritance of Loss. Overall, I really enjoyed it, although the first half was really hard work.

Kiran Desai starts out narrating a number of stories.

There is the life of Sai and her grandfather, the judge. Both are native Indians, living on the Nepali border, but have been of middle class stock. They have a fading grandeur: once they were influential but as chaos descends upon their part of India, they become increasingly irrelevant. Sai's maths tutor, and briefly a suitor, starts to become embarrassed by her as he becomes more involved in the Gorkha separatist movement.

There is an engaging story of Biju - the son of the judge's cook. Buji is an overstayer in the USA, working illegally in a succession of fleapit cafes along with workers from all over the world. His father, the cook, dreams that Biju is having a better life.

There are various back stories, including a Swiss cheesemaker, a pair of retired ladies of leisure, a dog and a little cat.

For the first half of the novel, it is not clear exactly what direction things are going in. I found the Biju story quite captivating, but found events in India rather disjointed and, actually, rather dull. The frequent use of Indian words, in italics bit without a great deal of context, started to become irritating and there was a sense of drift.

In the second half, though, Biju is left forgotten as events focus on the disintegration of Gorkhaland into anarchy. The westernized Indians found themselves threatened by the insurgents and unable to trust the loyalties of the police, neighbours and closest confidantes. This descent was really quite horrifying and balanced the personal detail with the general destruction to perfection. The pace picked up and plot, characterisation and detail all seemed to sharpen into focus. One was left wondering, though, why we had invested so much emotion in Biju.

The ending, when it came, was sudden and not quite satisfactory. Too many threads were left hanging and I never really understood the significance of the final events.

I thought this was a dense book - half of it brilliant - but that it fell just short of being a classic. It made an interesting contrast to Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, which also drew on Indian civil unrest; tension between western and eastern values; and the struggle of the personal values against the epic struggle of history. I think Rushdie hit the balance more successfully and reached a more satisfying conclusion. But this shouldn't detract from what Kiran Desai gets right in Inheritance. We should celebrate the half that is a classic rather than lament the half that is not.
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VINE VOICEon 15 August 2007
This was the latest offering at my book club and, sadly, this is the only reason why I felt the need to finish it.
It begins promisingly enough - I was enjoying the descriptive narrative and 'pointers' for future development were put into place. But then it just seemed to stop. It wittered on and on and was going absolutely nowhere (no mean feat!) - to say this book is plotless is overly gracious. Though very clearly KD can write, and the blurb tells us that this novel is exceptional, I'm afraid I found it utterly uninteresting. The characters were shallow and underdeveloped and I just didnt care what was happening to them.
Conversely, after finishing this, I have begun reading a novel that was longlisted for the Booker last year and can not put it down. It rather begs the question of what exactly this book did to achieve this accolade!
Very disappointing indeed.
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on 31 January 2007
I loved this book. The character observations and descriptions were prose of the highest quality. If you want a gripping read and a storyline that moves apace then this is not the book for you. But if you want to get inside the head of a number of different Indian people, sharing something of their post-colonial cultural confusion, then you will not be disappointed. One of the previous reviewers was disappointed that Desai did not paint `a lively world which would charm the reader'. Instead it was in places painted black, cynical, cruel, hypocritical. I certainly got the feeling that was the true India, rather than a pink-edged, happy bunny India, like some Bollywood movie. Recommended !
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VINE VOICETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 1 September 2007
If you have groaned at the précis of this Booker Prize winner-a tale of the clash between the cultures of the first and third world set in India-thinking it has all been done so many times before, please check yourself, and give this novel a chance. It is true if you are a devotee of novels which are plot driven with a strong narrative full of action on every page you are going to be disappointed: this is a work of more subtle pleasures: perceptive observation, the vivid pictures painted in words and some of the most beautiful writing I have come across in a very long time. One of Desai's greatest gifts is to evoke a truly vivid and convincing picture of the life, culture and attitudes of Indians living near the Nepal border across 3 generations but to do it through the vehicles of great human perception and empathy yet in prose not lacking in irony or humour unlike some similar novels in the same vein. Her descriptions of the Himalayan landscape are stunning but also take on an almost Hardyesque symbolic function whilst her account of the aspirations and broken dreams of its inhabitants are both immediate and timeless. This is not a work in the mould of Andrea Levy or Monica Ali: it has the weight of a Naipaul or Ishiguro but is more humorous than either. It has the poetry of a Vikram Seth but mercifully not the length. Ultimately what one remembers is the sheer beauty of the writing: the book would richly repay a second reading and some passages live in the mind long after the last page has been completed. Not to be missed.
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on 11 February 2007
I found it neither interesting or entertaining.
The story line is constantly interupted and in places almost kalidescopic.
I found that too much attention paid to what seemed to be superfluous detail was a debilitating destraction from the story which I found difficult to connect with.
The characters were one dimensional and the plot unconvincing.
Having to "study" and in some cases re-read each sentence in order to discern the plot was irritating which by the end of chapter 6 I got past caring anyway.
I am sorry but it did not deliver for me.
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on 4 March 2011
This is a book with tiny detail and sweeping views. It for those who love India and Nepal and for those who long to get there. It is a story of love and loss but always with the hope that good things will return. The dog will be found, the cook return and find all is well, the boyfriend knows where happiness lies and the house in the hills settles back to a comfy future. You wish everyone well.
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on 18 July 2007
I really looked forward to reading this book, but was sorely disappointed.

Although the premise is wonderful, and the it is not entirely impossible to sympathise with some of the characters, I found it a hard read, rather than an enjoyable one.

The book is well-written, but in using so many local terms (probably an attempt to give the book some character), she alienates the reader! They need some explanation, or else the meaning is simply lost. I also found that many of the characters were just too unusual to relate to, and so I think it will only have a limited audience - I am sure that people who are more familiar with the area it is set in (and its language) will get more out of it than I did.
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on 27 August 2007
Hmmm. This book is better than I thought (low expectations) but far less than it should be.

The plus points are easily summarised. Desai has a great gift for physical description, and occasionally her brief insights appear illuminating. It is possible to read this book and simply be beguiled by some lovely phrasing of description.

However, as other reviewers have mentioned, there is no plot whatsoever. Despite the scope and reach of the novel's aims (northern India across generations, and across to New York), virtually nothing of any note happens to anyone. Brief attempts are made to move characters forward, but these are laughable and gauche. If you are going to reach across decades and oceans, you'd better have pretty dense plotting, momentum, and a sense that everyone is moving towards something; otherwise, it is just chatter.

The characters themselves appear to pander to every stereotype going. If the writer was a white European, would critics be quite so taken with the snobbish Indian civil servant, the ladies who listen to the BBC and drone on about Blighty, the poor cook who is not worthy, or the ubiquitously mendacious and corrupt officials at every turn? Or would they criticise it for crude stereotyping and a failure to understand the complexity of a nation? As I'm not Indian, I was looking forward to learning something fundamental and meaningful about the nation and its' people. What I got was repetitious and lazy and shallow.

As for winning the Booker; well, in my experience the Booker and Whitbread/Costa winners are picked by pretentious literati, who are easily conned by flowery prose and grandiose aims, and forget about characters or plot or insight. Authors who ignore character development, or any kind of story, are forgiven, in the rush to big-up the "anguished prose" and "delicate touch". It seems enough here that a pretty woman wrote a book about India and immigration - never mind if it isn't any good. Ditto for Zadie Smith.

Ultimately, this book creeps into mediocrity on the strength of its' physical descriptions alone, which can be sumptuous. Somewhere, in the seven years it took her to write it, someone should have cuffed Desai around the back of the head screaming "plot! characters! development! structure!", and other features of any basic creative writing course. As it is, she has been indulged on a massive scale, and will presumably turn out the same empty effort next time around.

The book reads like a massively pretentious effort from a naive and inexperienced writer who lacks discipline and focus.
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on 20 June 2007
The beginning of this book seemed promising, if not gripping, but unfortunately the rest of the books followed in the same fashion: good but waiting for something to happen. I felt the characters were likeable enough, though, at the end, I did not feel I had "known" them, merely watched them act. I am surprised it won the Man Booker prize 2006, and I think the other contenders were robbed of the chance for the award
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