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Reviews of The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

The Inheritance of Loss

by Kiran Desai

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai X
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2006, 336 pages

    Paperback:
    Aug 2006, 384 pages

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Book Summary

In a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga lives an embittered old judge who wants to retire in peace, then his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, arrives on his doorstep. When a Nepalese insurgency in the mountains causes their lives to descend into chaos, they too are forced to confront their colliding interests. Winner of the 2006 Booker Prize.

Published to extraordinary acclaim, The Inheritance of Loss heralds Kiran Desai as one of our most insightful novelists. She illuminates the pain of exile and the ambiguities of postcolonialism with a tapestry of colorful characters: an embittered old judge; Sai, his sixteen-year-old orphaned grand­daughter; a chatty cook; and the cook’s son, Biju, who is hopscotching from one miserable New York restaurant to another, trying to stay a step ahead of the INS.

In a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga lives an embittered old judge who wants to retire in peace, then his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, arrives on his doorstep.

When a Nepalese insurgency in the mountains threatens Sai’s new-sprung romance with her handsome tutor, their lives descend into chaos. The cook wit­nesses India’s hierarchy being overturned and discarded. The judge revisits his past and his role in Sai and Biju’s intertwining lives. A story of depth and emotion, hilarity and imagination, The Inheritance of Loss tells “of love, longing, futility, and loss that is Desai’s true territory” (O: The Oprah Magazine).

One

All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water crea­ture across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapor, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.

Sai, sitting on the veranda, was reading an article about giant squid in an old National Geographic. Every now and then she looked up at Kanchenjunga, observed its wizard phosphorescence with a shiver. The judge sat at the far corner with his chessboard, playing against himself. Stuffed under his chair where she felt safe was Mutt the dog, snoring gently in her sleep. A single bald lightbulb dangled on a wire above. It was cold, but inside the house, it was still colder, the dark, the freeze, con­tained by stone walls several feet deep.

Here, at the back, inside the cavernous kitchen, was the cook, trying to light the damp wood. He ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. The Inheritance of Loss is preceded by a poem by Jorge Luis Borges. Given what you know of Borges, why do you think Kiran Desai chose his work as an epigraph? Who are “the ambitious . . . the loftily covetous multitude”? Why are they “worthy of tomorrow”? Who is “I”?

  2. The first evening that Sai was at Cho Oyu, “she had a fearful feeling of having entered a space so big it reached both backward and forward” (p. 34). Discuss this observation. Could this be a description of the novel itself?

  3. Discuss the terms globalization and colonialism. What does it mean to introduce an element of the West into a country that is not of the West, a person from a poor nation into a wealthy one? What ...
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  • award image

    Booker Prize
    2006

  • award image

    National Book Critics Circle Awards
    2006

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

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Set in the mid-1980s in Kalimpong, high in the northeastern Himalayas (where Desai spent some of her childhood), The Inheritance of Loss centers on three people living together in an ancient house named Cho Oyu - an embittered old British-educated judge (in the words of the novel, one of the "ridiculous Indians .... who couldn't rid themselves of what they had broken their souls to learn"), his orphaned granddaughter, and their cook. As the story unfolds, insurgency is growing in the region as the people press their demands for an independent state (see sidebar for more on this). This growing unrest is contrasted against that of Indians settled abroad, in particular the cook's son, Biju, an illegal immigrant who stumbles from one job to another in the USA.

When talking of the characters in The Inheritance of Loss, and of her own life, Kiran Desai says, "The characters of my story are entirely fictional, but [the journeys of my grandparents] as well as my own provided insight into what it means to travel between East and West and it is this I wanted to capture. The fact that I live this particular life is no accident. It was my inheritance."

Desai describes The Inheritance of Loss as a book that "tries to capture what it means to live between East and West and what it means to be an immigrant," and goes on to say that it also explores at a deeper level, "what happens when a Western element is introduced into a country that is not of the West" - which happened during the British colonial days in India, and is happening again "with India's new relationship with the States." Her third aim was to write about "what happens when you take people from a poor country and place them in a wealthy one". "How does the imbalance between these two worlds change a person's thinking and feeling? How do these changes manifest themselves in a personal sphere, a political sphere, over time?"

In her words, "These are old themes that continue to be relevant in today's world, the past informing the present, the present revealing the past."

As one reviewer comments, "although relieved by much humor, The Inheritance of Loss may strike many readers as offering an unrelentingly bitter view. But then, this is the invisible emotional reality Desai uncovers as she describes the lives of people fated to experience modern life as a continuous affront to their notions of order, dignity and justice. We do not need to agree with this vision in order to marvel at Desai's artistic power in expressing it."
"[People in the West are] scarcely aware of the overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world's population [which] neither magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm, nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom." - Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk speaking after 9/11...continued

Full Review (926 words)

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(Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Media Reviews

New Yorker
Briskly paced and sumptuously written, the novel ponders questions of nationhood, modernity, and class, in ways both moving and revelatory.

The New York Times - Pankaj Mishra
Kiran Desai's extraordinary new novel manages to explore, with intimacy and insight, just about every contemporary international issue: globalization, multiculturalism, economic inequality, fundamentalism and terrorist violence.

The Washington Post - Donna Rifkind
Her keen appreciation of contradiction enriches the book, and, if the integrity of her narrative is less than perfect, the integrity of her ideological convictions is absolute.

Booklist - Donna Seaman
Starred Review. In her second novel, Desai is even more perceptive and bewitching....Desai imaginatively dramatizes the wonders and tragedies of Himalayan life and, by extension, the fragility of peace and elusiveness of justice, albeit with her own powerful blend of tenderness and wit.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This stunning second novel ... alternately comical and contemplative ...Desai deftly shuttles between first and third world.

Library Journal
She fails to get readers to connect and identify with the characters, much less care for them. The story lines don't run together smoothly, and the switching between character narratives is very abrupt.

Reader Reviews

Gabrielle Renoir-Large

A Luminous, but Melancholy Book
It’s hard for me to say whether Kiran Desai’s second novel, the 2006 Man Booker winner, "The Inheritance of Loss," is panoramic or intimate. On one hand, it stretches from northern India to New York City to England, yet on the other, it ...   Read More
srinivas

natural aspects in kirarn desai
It is real enjoyable and at the same time it an inspiration for the literary students. The thing is that she frankly pointed out so many issues in a brief manner; how the beauty of nature gives an immensely powerful feelings with intensity.
Kari Nelson

Disjointed
An interesting read, but the storylines did not flow smoothly together, making it difficult for the reader to invest in the characters.
Vimal Khawas

Kalimpong: An Inheritance of Loss!
Vimal Khawas As a fellow local of Kalimpong, I was compelled to get hold of Kiran Desai’s ‘Inheritance of Loss’ that came into limelight after it clinched through the Booker Prize, 2006. Several reviews in national dailies, reputed magazines and ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Darjeeling, and the 1980s conflicts.

The area around Darjeeling in North East India (map) is populated primarily by Gorkhas (also known as Gurkhas) whose ancestors founded the Kingdom of Nepal; they have long wanted an independent state.  Massive violence broke out between 1986 and 1988 but was resolved with the establishment of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council within West Bengal.  Although some still push for statehood rather than autonomy, it seems there is not the political will at this time to press on.  For example, there was a large rally in 2005 to revive the demand for a separate state but the issue did not more forward. 

Gurkhas take their name from the Hindu warrior-saint Guru Gorakhnath.  The Gurkhas are renowned for their bravery and ...

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