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.
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.
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.
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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If you liked this, you might also like:
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
- An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
- Educated by Tara Westover
Top image credit: Rebecca Gilroy
Nails: Break a Red by MyGel