Posted by: Corri van de Stege | August 19, 2007

The Armchair Traveller challenge, number 5.

(winner of the Man Booker Prize 2006).

Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss  is the fourth book for my Armchair Traveller challenge, fifth if I include In Search of Adam and my visit to the north of England as well, and I have revealed some of the content in my previous blog, reading the book whilst travelling for work. 

The Inheritance of Loss takes us to an isolated village in the Himalayas, the Kanchenjunga mountain, where Sai lives with her grandfather the Judge and with the Cook.  The opening chapters indicate that there is unrest because the three are surprised by a gang of intruders, still boys, who are looking for the Judge’s guns, and who take the opportunity to humiliate the Judge in front of the granddaughter and the cook. It’s a wonderful introduction to a story that zigzags back and for the between the present and the past, focusing on the three main characters, stuck together in this deserted place, with their hopes and dreams and, their pasts, shameful or poor or both. 

The first chapters set the pace which the book never loses, and we are introduced into the Judge’s uneasy and unsettling past, his humiliations in England and his inability to connect with his environment, wherever he lives, leaving behind a sorrowful and pathetic life, grappling with his own existence.  We move back and forth in Sai’s life and in Cook’s life, the three of them inextricably linked and all set in this remote part of India.  We are introduced to Biju, the Cook’s son who is supposedly making an enviable existence in New York but the reality is somewhat different, as he is carving a substandard living as worker in a variety of third rate restaurants and bakeries, unable to escape back to India as he is an illegal immigrant and therefore cynically he does not have a green card that will enable him to buy a ticket. 

India is in turmoil still and through Sai’s tutor Gijan, with whom she falls promptly in love, we are drawn into the skirmishes and uprisings of the Ghurkas, who want independence and want a better life for themselves, no longer be the underdog.  The colonial past has left an indelible mark on the here and now, and Kiran Desai manages to show us glimpses, using sharp, crisp sentences, some very short, some going on like a complicated dance, that succeed in evoking the life in a country that is still grappling with its past and the influence of the British on their lives, forever changed, absorbed, a chameleon-like interference that they will never shake of. 

The book is immensely dense, the conversations at times hilarious the descriptions magical.  Nevertheless, at times it feels almost as if the author is overreaching herself, but she always manages to pick up again, never lets down the pace and never losing the majestic view that she gives us.  The odd hesitation, when you feel that you get a description gleaned from an encyclopaedia or a genuine travellers book are quickly overcome and we are constantly being drawn back into one of the characters’ life, either in the here and now or in their past, slowly linking up the mosaic into a wonderfully coherent whole. 

The portrait of Sai the young girl seems distant at times, we don’t get to know Sai’s real feelings, are just given the author’s descriptions, are kept guessing from snatches of dialogue, she remains a distant relative somehow.   On the other hand,  descriptions and seemingly genuine thoughts by the Judge or Cook are funny and full of witty understanding of the way people think and react.  At times I would have liked to know what Sai really felt, especially how she reacted to the very strange upbringing she had first in a convent and then with her grandfather.  However, towards the end of the book we are drawn into her response to Gijan’s betrayal, and this makes her a more rounded character than we have seen until then.

The writing is vibrant and he voice of the author comes through loud and clear.  She satirises the conversations beautifully and the sweeping narrative is magical.

And as far as travelling is concerned: I’d love to visit for real this isolated part of India, on the border with Nepal, the Himalayas and the villages dotted along. 


  1. Your great review is timely because I have previously flagged this book as a possible vacation read. I think it’s solid now that I’ll bring it with me to PV. Himalayas bespeak thrill, and the dense writing is just up my alley. 🙂

  2. Enjoy Matt – it’s a great book and offers much more than I can provide in a short review. Have a good holiday 🙂

  3. I turn my head wondering how I can catch up with your reading. What you review here is so clear that it makes me rush to the bookseller’s and try to get the book. Let me se if I am lucky. Thanks, seachanges for sharing.

  4. Jose: I just love reading.. If only there was more time!

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