Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Back in September, rapturous reviews of Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar piqued my interest, and while this book is not without its flaws, it certainly lived up to the hype.

The novel follows artist Antara, a recently married young woman living in her hometown of Pune, India. Her mother, Tara, is beginning to lose her memory with what the reader assumes is early onset dementia. As a result, mother and daughter are hauled back into one another’s lives.

There is a great deal of love, bitterness and pain in this collision, the reasons for which are revealed gradually as Antara recounts her childhood, which is scarred by trauma and abandonment.

“My year in boarding school would be the last time we’d be apart until I was much older and left of my own accord, against her will and without consent – but we did not know that at the time, having only known the past, when my will and consent were the ones in jeopardy. When I returned to Pune, I entered my mother’s new home like a stranger.”

While the novel focussed on captivating, compulsive characters, the narrative lacked propulsion. The story felt somewhat inconsistent and the pace faltered from time to time. Just when the it gained traction, it would abruptly break off into long-winded side stories. These were sometimes fascinating, but other times incomplete, and they prevented the story from unfolding in a satisfying way.

The first half was sluggish, albeit beautifully written. I was bored and unsure of whether to continue, but before you think this is a condemning review, I am glad I persevered.

The second half was mesmerising and commanding, and I didn’t mind at all when its structure became increasingly chaotic. It felt to me like the writer was in full creative, boundless expression. On reflection, the first half felt contrived, contained, imprisoned almost, and by the end I wondered if I had read separate halves of two different novels.

There is a sharpness and intelligence to Doshi’s writing, most apparent in her cutting and insightful remarks – a writing style that is particularly popular on the literary scene at the moment, which is why a place on the Booker shortlist comes as no surprise.

I have read reviews that have praised Doshi’s book for its authenticity and truthfulness, but to me this novel is far more about human fallibility, the fragility of memory, and the inconsistency of ‘truth’. Dementia is presented as confusing, painful and ultimately heart-breaking. It serves to exaggerate contradictions, expose harmful behaviours and is used a tool to explore human memory as a whole.

While Tara, as a symptom of her dementia, has her memories taken away from her, Antara clings to hers through her art. She draws the same face every day, over and over again, but each new edition is changed in small, subtle ways, until the original image becomes increasingly lost.

As Antara narrated her childhood, I got the sense that this was a story she has told herself over and over until she has forgotten which parts are true and which are not. It is a desperate attempt to avoid confronting her present, painful reality, which is that her mother’s suffering is entirely Antara’s fault.

“I try to calm her, to pull her away from the glass, but she moves back, her eyes feral, and I’m not sure she recognises my face. She recovers quickly, but that look is enough to take air out of my lungs. For a moment she did not know who I am and for that moment I am no one.”

Alongside this, there is the question of the reliability of the narrator. For example, the punchy sentence “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure”, while one of the best opening lines I’ve read in a long time, was enough to make me sceptical.

I did not read this simply as some rendered, shameless truth. Antara says this, most likely, to reiterate to herself what she wants to be true. She wants to hate her mother, but she cannot. Their relationship is too taut, too convoluted, and too co-dependent to be distilled down to one, overarching definition.

“She named me Antara, intimacy, not because she loved the name but because she hated herself. She wanted her child’s life to be as different from hers as it could be. Antara was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother. But in the process of separating us, we were pitted against each other.”

There is something mechanical about Doshi’s writing. Those previously mentioned sharp, insightful lines are divvied out at regular intervals – perhaps too regular, which weakens their overall effect.

By the end, the novel becomes rather heavy handed, which I quite enjoyed. I liked that the reader could finally see Antara in an impulsive, emotive state, completely removed for the narrative she has created for herself. It felt wild, animal and primal, and I think here Doshi is in her element.

She writes with flare and a ferocity that cuts through the story like a shard of glass, but she also relies on simplicity. She utilises that concise, spare writing style, and she executes this style well, but to the detriment, I think, of carving out her own voice.

However, given that this is a debut, I am sure that when her voice becomes more pronounced, defined and crafted, it will be an exceptional one.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton, 2020)

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Top image credit: Rebecca Gilroy
Nails: Break a Red by MyGel

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