The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is a complex novel which weaves themes of class, family and the experience of living as an outsider into a beautiful narrative. The novel is primarily set in Kalimpong at the foothills of the Himalayas in the mid 1980's during the agitation in Nepal for the establishment of a Gorkha state. However, like many of it's characters, the novel straddles two lands - one of the main storylines is that of Biju who has emigrated from Kalimpong and is living in NYC. The counter to Biju's story of struggle as an immigrant in NYC is that of the Judge, the Judge's grand-daughter Sai and Biju's father, "Cook" all living in an isolated house in Kalimpong.
As unrest breaks out in Kalimpong over the establishment of a Gorkha state, Sai, Judge and Cook are all forced to face the upending of a hierarchy that has defined their lives, for better or worse. Desai expertly tells each of their stories, albeit in snippets throughout the novel, and connects them to each other bit by bit. Meanwhile, far away from the foothills of the Himalayas, Biju is living in a different kind of chaos waiting tables and eking out an existence as an illegal alien in NY. There are many themes in this novel but that of the immigrant's sense of dislocation is one that is dealt with especially well and one that really resonated for me. Desai addresses the loss felt by many immigrants in this scene in which Biju finishes a hurried phone call from a dirty street phone booth to his father :
He could not talk to his father; there was nothing left between them but emergency sentences, clipped telegram lines shouted out as if in the midst of war. They were no longer relevant to each other's lives except for the the hope that they would be relevant . . . After the initial excitement [of returning home] was over, it often became obvious that the love was gone; for affection was only a habit after all and people, they forgot, or they became accustomed to its absence.
The poignancy of Biju's sense of being alone in NY but realizing that he also does not really fit in at home is powerful. He desperately misses his father but also recognizes that his emigration, this fulfillment of his father's dream for him, has created a distance between them emotionally that will likely never be bridged. That loss is palpable.
Writing an adequate review of this novel is challenging - the story is ambitious in the many themes it takes on throughout the multi-layered narrative and doesn't lend itself easily to summary. There are many characters in the novel and the author hopscotches among them throughout the book; at times, the story meandered and I wondered where it was all headed. But Desai skillfully knits it all together as the novel approaches its climactic end. The characters, settings and most importantly, the story, has remained with me long after I finished the book - well worth wading through characters and meandering narrative!
BBC World Book Club did an excellent interview with Kiran Desai about Inheritance of Loss - the author even addresses how she struggled to hold all the characters together as she wrote the novel. You can listen to the interview by clicking below: