“I wait for the fly to leave, to catch a scent from outside, a familiar breeze. But it doesn’t. It continues crossing from one side of the room to another.”
(p.137, Burnt Sugar)
Burnt Sugar is a compelling story of daughter and mother rivalry, and the intertwined memories and stories that eek out into surrounding relational landscapes. Antara finds herself having to make decisions regarding her mother’s care – a mother whose questionable life choices gives justifiable rise to emotional distress in Antara’s day to day life. With constant feelings of abandonment and a lack of duty of care by her mother, the novel intertwines the backstory of Antara’s childhood with the current conflict of how to care for a parent who continues to illicit emotional harm. Throughout her childhood, Antara is seen and heard only when her mother needs this support from her. After being dragged from a secure home (a marriage which her mother felt stagnant within), Antara has to adapt to living in an ashram where her mother mainly ignores her as she devoted herself, physically and psychologically, to the guru Baba. Witness to various abuses and forced to beg on the street, Antara wonders what she now owes her mother. But lurking in the dark is a series of paintings and drawings of a nameless man, apparent throughout the narrative, and we sense that maybe there is a reason for Tara’s resentment of Antara in later years, as Tara sees shadows of what might have been. Lies and memories get mixed up in a bittersweet battle for love, value and what it takes to be seen.
This brilliant novel throws us straight into the internal tug of war Antara experiences when challenged with looking after a mother who neglected her over the many years of her fraught childhood. The characterisation in intense and quite brilliant. Nothing is glossed over and Antara is a woman full of complexity, and the portrayal of her world is one of the best I have read in terms of being invited into the character’s mind and taking this ride of entanglement with her. We see glimpses of love underneath the hurt, often eclipsed by a sense of betrayal. Antara’s sense of invisibility is magnificently realised in the final scenes, which are most beautifully written. The longing for a mother’s positive attention is so well captured and draws forth everybody’s desire to be considered and nurtured. The haunting figure of the ‘drawn man’ invades the lives of these two women, and as more is revealed, the motive becomes more confused. Does this shadow arise from revenge or a hole that is left by the removal or diminishment of parental engagement?
At times Antara tries to remove the emotional strings that tie her mother and herself together, but it is impossible – the emotion is so close to the surface you could sail on it.
“I understood how connected we were, and how her destruction would irrevocably lead to my own.”
(p.168, Burnt Sugar)
This book will soak you up, and may also tease out consideration of your own family tapestries. Along with the depth of character the author offers us, the storyline unfolds in easy to read remembrances and present-day choices, and each chapter leaves you longing to read the next. This is a multi-faceted work, and you’ll likely find yourself questioning the way you also perceive yourself as the novel asks what happens when you don’t feel at home in or as yourself, how much of your identity belongs to you or to someone else, how many decisions are based on guilt and shame and what responsibility really means. A brilliant debut and so very worthy of the 2020 Booker Prize nomination.
About Avni Doshi
Avni Doshi is a novelist currently living in Dubai. She was born in New Jersey, America, in 1982 and spent many summers in Pune, India, where her debut novel ‘Burnt Sugar’ is mostly set. She graduated with a BA in Art History from Barnard College in New York, a Masters in History from University College London, and spent 8 years working on the novel, which was originally released in India under the title ‘Girl in White Cotton’. ‘Burnt Sugar’ has since been translated into more than 20 languages and is a nominee for the 2020 Booker Prize. Doshi was the recipient of the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013, a Charles Pick Fellowship in 2014, and her work has been featured in both Granta and The Sunday Times.