By Avni Doshi
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In her youth, Tara was wild.
She abandoned her loveless marriage to join an ashram, endured a brief stint as a beggar (mostly to spite her affluent parents), and spent years chasing after a dishevelled, homeless ‘artist’ – all with her young child in tow.
Now she is forgetting things, mixing up her maid’s wages and leaving the gas on all night, and her grown-up daughter is faced with the task of caring for a woman who never cared for her. This is a love story and a story about betrayal. But not between lovers – between mother and daughter.
Sharp as a blade and laced with caustic wit, Burnt Sugar unpicks the slippery cords of memory and myth that bind two women together, and hold them apart.Tweet
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Burnt Sugar follows Antara and her problematic, toxic relationship with her mother Tara. It is complex, unsettling and bold. The story drifts in and out of the present day woven with disturbing flashbacks from Antara’s childhood during the 80’s.
Themes of neglect and abandonment, memory, trauma and family run throughout the story. “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure”. The opening line says it all.
Set in Pune, India the book is littered with cultural references. You can almost feel the heat, humidity and pollution in the air, and experience the smells and sounds of the city. Within this landscape we meet Antara’s family, her past and her present.
There is a dream-nightmare like quality that made me feel on edge from start to finish and left me wondering what can be trusted and accepted as truth or reality and what was a product of anxiety and paranoia...a result of memories and secrets that have festered and have the power to engulf the world that has been built upon them if they were to be released into the open. There is a lingering darkness that creates an underlying feeling of uneasy.
Avni Doshi’s writing style is punchy. You will find yourself craving her choice of language and compelled to continue reading. Burnt Sugar is a memorable debut, unlike anything I’ve read before and I’m intrigued to read whatever Doshi writes next.
“I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure” says Antara, the 30-something artist protagonist in the opening paragraph of Burnt Sugar. Many of us have complicated relationships with our mothers I’m sure, and have found these increasingly difficult to navigate as we age and dynamics change. The brutal honesty in this exploration of a difficult and unconventional mother-daughter relationship, captured effortlessly in Avni Roshi’s brilliant prose, is why I found this book so compelling.
The narrative style in the novel could be described loosely as stream of consciousness. We skip to various points in the past to learn how the relationship between Antara and her mother, Tara, has come to be, and then are brought to the present where we are treated to an uncensored account of Antara’s every thought (at one point she even fleetingly considers what it might be like to have sex with her own father). It’s not an easy read, but luckily I’m not someone who has to like a protagonist to enjoy a book. Indeed I find it more interesting when characters are both broken and strong, reprehensible and moral, selfish and selfless, as Antara is.
The title “Burnt Sugar” is in reference to the sugary foods that Antara ends up feeding her mother in order to expedite her dementia in an effort to keep her own affair with her mother’s lover, Reza Pine, a secret. It is also a nod to her mother’s propensity for starting fires (both literally and metaphorically) and Antara’s reliance on food as an emotional crutch during her traumatic upbringing. Few could defend Tara’s choices as a mother, however there are signs of mental illness in her reckless and compulsive behaviour from an early stage and this is compounded by emotional abuse at the hands of various men during her life. All of the men in the novel are, without exception, useless: unreliable or absent and detached from reality, although ultimately they are pretty insignificant as characters. In contrast, the women are complicated; dutiful and loving although conniving and at times dangerous. Even the nuns in the convent school where Antara is sent are capable of unbelievable cruelty.
I was initially titillated by the hint of a storyline around cult-like ashrams, however – although Baba was more than a little reminiscent of real-life Rajneesh of the eponymous spiritual movement - this turned out to be the dullest element of the story for me. More fascinating was the insight into modern India, where Antara lives in both extreme poverty in earlier life but goes on to have relative wealth. Servants are treated severely, divorce is frowned upon, astrologers name babies, yet people dine in fancy member’s clubs, take drugs, have affairs… Dilip, Antara’s American husband, acts a further literary vehicle for demonstrating the contrast and similarities between the east and west.
The novel ultimately ends with Antara questioning her sanity following the birth of her own daughter and trying to escape a family gathering where her mother, now in an extreme state of confusion as a result of her dementia, believes that she is married to Dilip. She realises this is futile and that she will forever be entwined with her mother. It’s a confusing and unsatisfying ending, but one I think is befitting of a story of a confusing and unsatisfying relationship. Burnt Sugar won’t be for everyone, but it is a unique, enlightening and beautifully crafted novel that is very deserving of its Booker Prize nomination.
As a writer I can see why Avni Doshi has earned the praise she has. Her ability to paint such detailed pictures with words is amazing. Whilst reading this book I have often thought - how on earth did it occur to you to add that sentence or that piece of detail?
I found the story quite hard to read at times as I couldn't relate to Tara's attitude towards Antara whilst she was a child. I can't even begin to imagine acting in a way that would make a child feel frightened, alone or unsafe and unsecure in their family throughout their childhood.
The book highlights the impacts that various mental health problems can have on a family and Doshi has carefully interwoven the experiences of the past with the reality of the present. It is by no means a comfortable read and one I don't think I would want to read again, but it has been crafted well.