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Burnt Sugar

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

As seen:

  • Booker Prize 2020
  • Women's Prize for Fiction longlist 2021

By Avni Doshi

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30 reviews

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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.

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09 Sep 2021

I enjoyed this gutsy look at an imperfect mother - daughter relationship, and how it stands up to the mother's diagnosis of dementia. None of the characters were likeable, which was fascinating. A really honest, brutally realistic piece.

23 Apr 2021

This is a daughter's account of her life, in particular her relationship with her mother. Past episodes are interleaved with present development, in which the mother has dementia, and the daughter is struggling to care for her.
There seems to be not a single relationship in the book that isn't abusive or manipulative in some way, and that made reading it quite draining. But I guess that also means that the characters are convincing and relatable to me.

15 Nov 2020


Was transported to Pune in India by this unsettling novel about a mother/daughter relationship. Although set in vividly depicted India the relationship between the two women then and now is the focus and driving force of the book. As a Guardian reviewer said: "Burnt Sugar is sorrowful, sceptical and electrifyingly truthful about mothers and daughters." And that sums it up, really.

01 Nov 2020


I loved this book. I was pleasantly surprised as I didn’t know much about it beforehand. Avni’s prose is luscious and some of the sentences are just pure poetry. I loved that non of the characters were really likeable. And I enjoyed the ambiguity. The relationship between Mother and daughter is executed with such skill my heart-ached for them. Great contender to win The Booker Prize.

01 Nov 2020


I went into this book with only a vague idea of the content and was blown away by the gritty telling of a mother-daughter relationship so far removed from 'the norm'.
The fact that the main character isn't immediately a likeable character or perceived as perfect was also great, as it felt more real and made her more relatable rather than something to strive toward.
For me, the way food was represented in the book was incredible - the vivid descriptions and the way a dish or the smell held some sort of memory or positivity in the absence of anything else.

The only thing I disliked was the movement from the present to the past - at times it felt disjointed and jarring and would take me a while to get back into the flow.

01 Nov 2020


'Burnt Sugar' was a close and real depiction and exploration of one of lifes most complex relationships, that of a Mother and Daughter. The narration was unreliable which was refreshing and enabled the relationship to be explored in a fully honest and open manner, transporting the reader to the narrators everyday. The lack of scence setting and decription provided supported this as we saw the world through Antaras eyes, she wasnt trying to transport us with her just give an open and honest account, the kind of account we have in everyday life, this allowed the story to feel even more real.

The pace of the novel quickened as the characters unravelled. Antara was a fully flawed character as her 'dreams' became a reality and what she feared most began to become true as she turned into her Mother. The male characters that surrounded her were utterly useless as she allowed relationships to develop with her self that she had previously berated her Mother for. Antara's relationship with Pavri was dealt with in a very light touch way and could have been explored in more depth, perhaps there could be a sequel in this relationship. This was a fully enjoyable read, depsite splitting opinion as part of our bookclub, Idle Readers. I would, and have, recommend it to others.

01 Nov 2020


Abrasive characters. Transportive, realistic imagery. Heavy, emotional themes.
I found it really difficult to bond with this book, but have to credit Doshi for juggling so many themes and unlikeable characters.

01 Nov 2020


I would say this novel is an entrancing read. I felt enveloped by the mind of the protagonist. I wanted her to not be weighted by the obligations and toxic relationship to the mother. I felt part of her journey and sometimes aghast at her choices. Then I realised that the choices she made were because of her life's journey. None of us are free to shape our lives when we are young however, if the only choice you know is warped by a sea of rejection, criticism, abuse and confusion then that is the reality you live in and understand. Burnt Sugar highlights how our loving relationships form our lives and our need to be loved by the people close to us. “Reality is something that is co-authored” and “She could try to be a little forgiving. A little forgiving of the daughter who has suffered at her hands and has been there for her regardless” It is a tragic tale but told with poignant descriptions. I admire the authors honesty and the thoughts she bravely expresses. It made me think. A great read.

01 Nov 2020


This was the fourth book on the Booker shortlist that I've read this year. It's also probably my least favourite. I couldn't get with the style, or the characters, or the themes of the book. It was a heavy in many ways and I wasn't compelled to pick it up and keep going. That said, I think there's so much in this book to appreciate. The strange/aggressive/passive aggressive/controlling mother-daughter relationship was the central point of orbit for me, and the other themes seemed to not matter that much for me as a reader. It's a divisive book that has sparked a lot of discussion and I'm glad I read it, it just wasn't for me.

01 Nov 2020


Burnt Sugar is a short and intense read. The story follows a young woman struggling to deal with her traumatic past and her mother’s Alzheimer’s. Their relationship is a tumultuous one and Antara, our protagonist, begins to lose sight of herself the more her mother begins to deteriorate.
None of the characters are particularly likeable, Antara especially has some dark and intrusive thoughts but I find this makes her all the more believable, while you don’t exactly root for her you somewhat understand her behaviour.
The writing is very disjointed, short and sharp segments fill each chapter flitting back and forth between past and present. This is a great reflection on Antara’s mother’s memory and how nothing seems to fit in the right order anymore. The poetic imagery makes it easy to slip into Antara’s world and root yourself in each of the moments of her story. The heavy emphasis on smell is unusual to me but brings the whole story to life, it fully absorbs you into Antara’s world as you may not be able to visualise exactly where she lives or feel her surroundings you can imagine the smells she describes - no matter how repulsive.
The big question of the book is whether memories are infallible - how can you be sure someone is forgetting something when your own memory might be wrong. Everything exists within our own context after all.
It is a story of ongoing neglect and manipulation, and how to truly know yourself when you’ve only ever existed in comparison to someone else.

01 Nov 2020


i loved this book. i thought that the central theme of the relationship between a daughter and her mother, told through the daughters widely varying perceptions and emotional responses over decades from early childhood into adulthood deliberately raised more questions than it could answer

dementia, trauma, manipulation and emotional abuse all seem to distort the narrative but actually it’s a straightforward story with two central characters and a handful of supporting cast, simply drawn to highlight something about either tara or antaras character or their experience or relationship.

the confusion is in and between these two women

the narrator describes her relationship in sly obscuring language right from the opening line:

“i would be lying if i said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure”

it takes a moment to unpack, and then the reader is thrown into antara‘s urgent impossible bitterness, having no recourse to justice, or even an acknowledgement of the truth. she feels “acrid” she sounds bursting with the need to tell us her story, shes intimate and confessional with the reader and disarmingly admits that she is motivated by revenge. she is keeping a written record of wrongs committed against her.

the reader quickly realises that she really is often lying; directly, through omissions, exaggerations but we are never told whether she is aware of this or not, and maybe for all of us the truth lies somewhere between the two... much later in the book we see her account of her fathers abandonment is a wounded child’s memory, it carries the emotional force of the true neglect but the narrative feels implausible, we question what we have been told before. the author makes us want to back track and fact check “from a photo i found...” which further complicates the reading experience.

the narrator climbs about in a system, illuminating it from different angles rather than telling a linear narrative. the frequent destabilising new pieces of information, for example, her revelation that she had a relationship with her mothers ex lover, and that her repeated portrait is of this man, turn the book upside down, make the reader think that resolution might be possible, but of course, the tension between multiplying possibilities becomes increasingly hard to contain. when antara engages in therapy she confirms the very simple statement that her parents abandonment affects her badly; “doesn’t it make sense that people want to leave” even though exploring this and finding more questions and complexities horrifies her “a hook from the hand of some nightmare.”

i found the powerful sensory descriptions worked in contrast to this. the often revolting and sadistic details are vividly and simply drawn in neutral language and not interpreted. scenes of appalling cruelty, rape, suffering of animals and people are left detached from emotional response, like traumatic memories often are. they don’t make sense, they are terrifying, sickening and they stay long after the book is finished. these details reminded me of some of the detached sadistic and abusive details in wuthering heights which also has themes of abandonment, child abuse and neglect and how this moves through generations.

the author zooms in to microscopic detail but also out to cover large portions of narrative briefly, or skips over them leaving the reader insecure. the description of tara and reza’s sexual energy, taras forceful sexualisation of her daughter, comparing body parts in an awful competition, the scene where the couple pressure her to undress, her discomfort and the obvious hints towards sexual abuse are disturbing. it seems likely she has been raped by the shack owner, and that her mother and reza know this. antara is stuck between hating her mother and longing to stay in the attention she’s recieving, it’s upsetting to read in the position of knowing more than the child narrator could understand. we see a child in horribly inappropriate situations feeling shame and confusion.

the author brilliantly works in other stories, dilip’s jain heritage, nani’s memories of childhood in a refugee camp after partition. they are chapters opened and quickly abandoned because antara can’t bear to empathise, or even hear other people’s stories; “her eyes quiver and move to the wall behind my head. i turn away and reach for my laptop..” but they resonate, shock, sadden and pull the reader away from the narrator briefly.

this makes the brief moments of admiration and love the narrator feels for her mother breathtaking, when she routinely describes her with disgust and murderous hate that the reader becomes worryingly used to; “can it really be so simple ... to poison her in plain sight” and “if she would only stop being such a terrible cunt, i would get her back on track” moments like; “i saw then how beautiful she was” the kind of statement a daughter might ordinarily say about her mother, leaps out.

throughout the book i found myself trying to work “it” out, noticing the narrator’s slips and omissions, sometimes feeling i understood more than she wanted me to, then quickly feeling confused again. a power struggle.

the metaphor of the narrator’s art, daily redrawing one face from memory, which like all memory it is changing without us noticing until it no longer resembles the original; “i cannot recollect the shape of my life”

but in its slipperiness, the constant longing for true representation, the ‘realness’ that a portrait might pretend to offer, it is showing us what is constant, uncertainty and a fear of the truth. for antara the uncertainty of others is unbearable but also the reverse for herself; being known is incredibly dangerous;

“he’s right. but i want to cry for being stupid, for giving him the tools to make this incision.”

the narrator longs for the total withdrawal and narcissistic fantasy of the mirrored lift, a traditionally claustrophobic, discomforting narrative setting, for her the lift is gentle and “feels like home in a way i never noticed before and i see myself in every surface” it’s a terribly sad revelation, the lift can’t be a home, it’s a tiny temporary reprieve from her distress in relationship.

i found this book challenging and forcefully truthful in its description of inconvenient, unstable experiences. the new baby, whose name feels meaningless, whose mother is interchangeable does not offer a hopeful future in this intergenerational history. she is alive, thanks to her mothers impulse to throw her out if the window easing, but her life seems impossibly emeshed in ongoing harm.

it’s a brilliant read and i’m still thinking about it, it’s the kind of book that would be a great re-read

big thanks to idle readers book group for the chance to discuss and write about it.

31 Oct 2020


Burnt Sugar is an honest and unheard account of Antara's story and the relationship with her mother. The blunt realism of this story cuts through the dialogue sharply and, personally, this is something that I very much enjoyed about the book. It felt like Doshi had reached into the depths of my brain, pulled out whatever was there and intertwined this into the dialogue. Often, much of the descriptive text was filled with imagery that made me squirm but I surprisingly enjoyed this! I felt that it gave grit to the sharpness of the mental torture that I feel Antara endures throughout. Antara was very unreliable and flawed as a narrator and I was never sure whether to trust her which gave a certain intrigue to the story and I was constantly questioning whether Antara's mother actually had dementia at all which the book leant itself towards. There were parts of the story which felt quite heart breaking as you noticed the realities of how it must feel to lose your own mother, however, Antara and her mother's relationship was complex and there was definitely a feeling that Antara was slowly becoming her mother without her noticing. At first, I felt a sorrow for the narrator because of the lack of support she had surrounding the situation with her mother, however, as the book went on, I realised that this story was all from the perception of one mind and with the questioning of Antara and her mother's relationship, this sorrow lessened. Throughout, we learn about Antara's culture and how this has affected Antara and in particular the relationship with her partner Dilip. Throughout, it felt apparent that Antara never had a love for Dilip but that she was with him because her culture expected her to be. My favourite thing about the book was the attention to detail within the imagery used in the dialogue. Doshi has a way that makes you envisage close details of the story as if you are living that story with Antara because of how intricate her visionary dialogue is. I could play out every chapter clearly in my mind. There is an ongoing theme of mental torture throughout the story which is apparent in the detail. The sentence 'mental sweats but never remembering the contents of his dreams' in relation to Dilip's nightmares nicely sums this up. This sentence actually clarifies much of how I thought the narrator felt throughout. Doshi's writing style focuses closely on the observance of cognitive and physical behaviours eloquently. This was interesting but affective. It sometimes felt like the narrator had a personality disorder and was watching the scene play out outside of her body to which she commented on it without emotional response. I quite enjoyed this as the cognitive explanations were so well explained and relatable. It was like reading into the subtext of Antara's mind but after time, I wanted to read the book from someone else's point of view and with some emotional backing. Hearing Antara and her mother's story throughout the book was eye-opening and gave me much respect for Antara's mother's strength from constant attempt at escaping the oppressive nature of her culture. Towards the end of the book, it's interesting to see Antara's relationship with her own newborn daughter. This mother/daughter relationship had been reborn and Antara hated that this was apparent and what she realised to be inevitable. Perhaps this echoes the torture that Antara feels. An unending cycle that can never be broken but she wishes to break.

31 Oct 2020

Hannah Bell

Burnt Sugar is a dark and gripping read. It focuses on the dysfunctional relationship between Antara and her mother, Tara, and flits between the past and present. Tara neglected Antara as a child and as Tara develops dementia Antara has to cope with her complex feelings towards her mother as she takes on a caring role. At times it was left to the reader to fill in the gaps or interpret what had happened. Sometimes this was frustrating, for example, I would have liked more details about Tara's childhood and what happened to make her behave to Antara as she did. The supporting characters, especially the men, didn't feel as well written. When Antara had her own baby I was hoping that she may find some peace and happiness but I found the ending rather bleak and it seemed that another difficult mother/daughter relationship was beginning.

31 Oct 2020


This book had a lot of potential, with her creative and vivid world building as well as touching upon complex themes however I felt her lack of writing experience presented itself, and much of her narrative was lost because of that.
The structure of the story appeared to be fragmented and difficult to follow at times, with a variety of time jumps and dream sequences. This could have been to illustrate the narrator's unrealiable narrative or perhaps her own descent into madness but the author has not skillfully portrayed either of these ideas clearly, and instead leaves the reader to decide on their own. Many enjoy this open to interpretation writing, and I do when it's done well, yet in this book it came across that the author had many ideas and not the skill to fully translate them to paper.
I was further disengaged by the characters lack of development throughout the book and their total disregard for one another, almost like reading a soap opera filled with 2D characters that are there to serve a muddled plot. Their unnecessary cruelty and lack of care for one another, made it difficult to connect or relate to any of the characters, making my interest in the story diminish.
Portraying themes of toxic relationships, mental health, women's roles in society (to name a few themes that occur) are fascinating and multifaceted alongside having the freedom to express these thoughts and opinions however an author seems fit. Yet personally it seemed that Avni Doshi juggled too many topics at once, so rather having a couple of themes be fully realised, the book contained multiple ideas, none of which had the investment to be fully explored. The responsibility of gaining anything from this book was solely put on the reader, with very little direction from the author and I believe that to be a shame because her overall visceral writing style was intriguing but I do believe her inexperience let the book down.

31 Oct 2020


Thoroughly absorbing from the outset, Burnt Sugar explores a toxic mother-daughter relationship from the daughter's (Antara) perspective. Covering topics such a neglect and dementia, it is at times uncomfortable to read however Doshi's strong descriptive style draws you in and makes you feel part of narrative.
The theme of memory runs throughout the book, from Antara's artwork and childhood memories to her mother's memory loss pulling the story together.
A great debut, I look forward to reading more from this author.

31 Oct 2020


Told through the narrative of Antara, 'Burnt Sugar' is a compelling and often uncomfortable read about a difficult mother / daughter relationship. Set in Prune, India, Doshi's descriptive writing emotes the senses - in particular, smell features heavily - whether it be the smells of the city, food, bodily odours and even sex - taking you right into Antara's world.

One of the main themes of the book is memory and how it can play tricks on you. Antara's mother, Tara, appears to be suffering from dementia. The book goes back and forth from the present back through Tara's childhood and you can't help but question Tara's memory and reality, as opposed to her mother.

While the book can be uncomfortable to read, at other times I laughed out loud at Antara's descriptions of those around her. A very emotive debut.

31 Oct 2020

A story told through the lens of Antara whose mother is beginning to show the signs of early onset dementia, this book is deeply affecting and painfully provocative, and seeks to tackle the nuances of love, care and neglect. Placing a fraught mother daughter relationship at the heart of the story, the book explores what it means to look after someone who's lack of care and love has irrevocably shaped the narrator's perspectives and understanding of those around her, whilst exposing the unreliability of memory when revisiting a shared past. A story of power-struggles, controlling behavior, imperfect characters and palpable resentment, it is both compelling and thought-provoking and leaves has left me with a bittersweet taste so impactful was the writing and portrayal of its central characters.

31 Oct 2020


You might describe ‘Brunt Sugar’ by how it made you feel physically as much as emotionally. In perhaps its most intriguing part, you can practically smell the incense and unclean bodies in a 1980s Ashram. Later this flashback that feels like a dream falls into a predictable nightmare. And as for the enigmatic guru “Baba”, you’ll have heard about guys like him before. It is a chapter for the strong of stomach to be sure. Brilliant though.

Narrator Antara is the daughter of the rebellious and free-spirited Tara. Tara’s parenting approach could be defined as ‘simply good enough’ (or less than). 30 years on from the Ashram days, an understandably reluctant Antara agrees to care for her mother, who has begun to develop dementia. How can you care for someone who never really cared for you? forms the internal conflict of the story. Antara, now married, upper-middle-class and a member of a private lunch club with lines of coke on the side, muses coolly at the beginning “I’d be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure”. At times it is hard to like either mother or daughter.

‘Burnt Sugar’ is an intoxicating, but gripping read all the same. As too often is the truth in life, caring for an estranged family member in their utmost need can result in some restitution, but never ever to the extent you need.

31 Oct 2020


I really enjoyed this book. I loved the writing style and the central relationship between Antara and her mother was fascinating. I found the structure of the book slightly frustrating and jarring, which made it difficult to dip in and out of the book. Overall, a good read that I would recommend to anyone.

30 Oct 2020

[email protected]

I found this book to be a really interesting read that challenged stereotypes of motherhood and the ongoing relationship between Mother's and Daughters. It was really interesting to see the ongoing impact of the relationship between Tara and Antara from childhood into adulthood and how the sense of abandonment felt by Antara impacted her ability to form relationships with others. The language and imagery used was raw and ugly and at time felt like an assault on the senses - particularly in the description of food and smells often related to the narrator's own body. The book introduced lots of interesting ideas about memory and how we all interpret memories of the same time or even in different ways and if we choose to interpret them in a certain way to serve our perception of how things are and begs us to ask the question about how reliable our own memories are. I liked that all the characters including the narrator are flawed and quite unlikeable and I've finished the book wondering how things turn out for them all.

30 Oct 2020

Although I enjoyed the book I found it hard to be fully invested in the characters. I found Antara a difficult character to connect with as she never seemed to try and consider perspectives outside her own. I felt Doshi painted a very vivid picture of India, explored through noises, food and smell, I just wish we had been able to explore other characters in the same detail.

30 Oct 2020


A good book, not what I usually read
The change of tense confused me a lot
Didn't want to make me keep reading though

30 Oct 2020


Tara and Antara aren't the most sympathetic of characters but the journey towards unravelling their complex relationship was often astonishing - the detailed was vivid and intriguing.
The cultural and social climate of India was brilliantly explored throughout all of their experiences, intense scenes that were graphic and distressing interspersed with flashes of humorous observation that made me laugh out loud.
There were a lot of complex themes to explore (maybe too many?) and the book was a regular assault on the senses but ultimately it was a book that will keep on giving and provoke discussion and questioning about memory, perception and especially about mother/daughter relationships.
A fascinating debut.

30 Oct 2020


After last year’s Booker Prize shortlist was comprised of established authors at the height of their powers, it was interesting to see mostly début novelists this year. It makes your expectations different and you read looking for signs of future greatness in the work.

Unfortunately, with Burnt Sugar, I was disappointed. I didn’t find nuance in the relationships and felt that a lot of the imagery was used for shock value rather than to build a story. I think it’s indicative of a problem in the publishing industry that there’s such a dearth of books about mother-daughter relationships that one so free from complexity should feel important to so many people. The animosity between these characters was captured well, but what about every other emotion?

Having said that, it was fascinating to hear from people who enjoyed the novel at Idle Readers book group in Manchester. I love that something which felt so flat to me resonated with so many others. It’ll be doubly interesting to see what the judges say if it wins the prize. But unless her future stories are very different in style, I won’t rush to read them.

29 Oct 2020


Burnt Sugar deals with topics that are not very often dealt with and Doshi writes it so bluntly and fearlessly - I don't feel that anything gets missed out for the sake of saving the reader from unease - and I don't recall having ever read anything as bold and affecting in the vocabulary choice and imagery. The imagery was incredible throughout and there was not a single setting or image that I felt was out of place. A vivid world was created, and I did find myself invested in the lives of the characters. One aspect I would love to comment on is the complexity of each of the characters - I would be shocked to learn something new about each of them every time a new memory or event was portrayed, including Antara, who we follow throughout. This way, each character felt like they could exist in reality and each played an important part in who Antara became/is becoming. Some of the imagery affected me in a way that I haven't felt before and I can see this book sticking with me for a while, for better or worse. If you're looking for something uplifting, this novel probably won't be for you. However, I will have no trouble recommending it to anyone who wants an engaging, sometimes difficult, but rewarding read. It may not be for everyone but I truly hope Doshi can get the recognition she deserves and I anticipate engaging with what she writes in the future.

29 Oct 2020


I was surprised when I found out that this is Doshi's debut novel as it was captivating from the start. The strong themes of family, betrayal and aging, alongside the complexity of love and emotion shown between mother and daughter, were intertwined throughout the prose. At times I felt like too many themes were happening, when it would have been more investing to focus on the primary subject matters. However, I particularly enjoyed the continuation of the mother/daughter relationship towards the end of the novel, once Antara herself became a mother and would have loved for this to be expanded on further.

The descriptions of Pune, India made me feel immersed in the setting and the sights, sounds and smells certainly came across in vivid form. The complexity of the central characters kept the book enticing, especially with the protagonist being wholly honest and ruthless.

27 Oct 2020


Doshi has very cleverly intertwined snapshots of memories and raw emotions which initially may seem unconnected, but are very deeply embedded together. All of these memories are intricately described which made me think I was there, feeling, watching, and involved (sight, smell, and sound are all brought to life). Doshi has portrayed hard, cruel and dysfunctional relationships that have a lasting impact on the complex characters and shape their mental stability. Everything is believable (whether it is reality or the interpretation of a damaged mind) which made the novel uncomfortable reading in several places. It is extremely well written and unpredictable

24 Oct 2020

Rachel J

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.

17 Oct 2020


“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.

15 Oct 2020


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.

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