The Booker Prize is awarded annually to the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK or Ireland. It is the leading literary award in the English speaking world, and has brought recognition, reward and readership to outstanding fiction for over 50 years.
The full shortlist of six titles can be found here, but in this series of articles we will look at each title in detail.
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.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi divided Idle Readers! It seems to be a real ‘marmite’ of a book, no one was left sitting on the fence-either we loved it, or we had a strong dislike for it.
This divide prompted a varied and lively discussion- which we believe is a strong sign of a good book! We all agreed that Doshi immediately pulls you into Antara’s headspace which is a lonely, dark and uncomfortable place to be. She is an unreliable narrator. Some found this flaw relatable whilst others found this to be frustrating, desperate to hear from the perspective of the other characters. Through this narration we explore Antaras unconventional childhood and her gritty, complicated relationship with her mother Tara and learn of the lack of empathy for one another.
The key themes we explored together in our discussion were maternal relationships, food and memories. These tightly weave with additional themes of: caring for a parent, toxic relationships with ourselves, friends or family, controlling behaviour (prominent in Antara’s hoarding nature, her art and how she prescribes food to her mother), abandonment and neglect during childhood.
The book is visceral, an assault on the senses, visual, descriptive and evocative. We all talked about how the book made us feel- our physical and emotional responses to experiencing Antara’s life and memories.
The majority of Idle Readers would recommend reading- it is a punchy book with unexpected depth that will leave you feeling out of sorts. We thought Burnt Sugar was a vivid, brutal and refreshing read.
1. Avni Doshi wrote about motherhood before becoming a mother herself. Do you think that a writer’s personal experiences influence how they write their characters?
KC: Of course personal experience influences how a writer writes – occasionally I think more experience can be for the worse though. Doshi wrote about Antara’s feelings about her baby so well. I feel that, after someone has experienced something as big as childbirth, they might feel a bit closed minded about it (possibly too emotionally close to the subject) and write to their own experience. While this can be a good thing – grounding a description and story in reality – having the personal experience may have made her a bit more reluctant to write about it the way she did (?). I’m just throwing a suggestion out. She did it really well though, I think. I also have not become a mother myself so I’m generalizing it to other big changes that I have experienced. Maybe it’s not the same.
RC: I agree with your point that if Doshi had experienced motherhood she may not have been able to write about Antara’s relationship with her child in the same way. I for one find it much harder to understand how some people treat their children the way they do after having my own child. Also, I did have the ‘baby blues’ after having my daughter and am not keen on reliving those feelings. It would be very hard to write about something similar in a character.
2. How did you feel when reading about Tara’s memory loss and how Antara copes with it?
KC: This is a subject that hits home with a lot of people and I think everyone finds their own unique ways of dealing with it. In my opinion, dementia is the worst thing people have to deal with because the pain is stretched out over such a large period of time and it is so unpredictable – there is no concrete time where you can start grieving and you feel so powerless. Antara can read as many articles about dementia as she can find – she can read, and read, and know everything there is to know about dementia, the fact still stands: she is losing her mother, and cannot do anything to stop it. The parts nearer to the end did resonate with me a lot more than the rest of the novel and although Antara arrived at some complicated ways of dealing with it (including feeling in control by changing Tara’s diet in order to slow down or speed up the development of the dementia), I can appreciate that Antara had been through, and was going through so much, additionally may have been suffering from some mental health issues, and needed some way to release all of this pressure she had building up. It would have been better if she would have talked to someone about it, but that’s always obvious when you’re on the outside, looking in.
CS: Totally agree with this. She did try to seek help p178 but she felt the therapist asked too many questions. The therapist tries to allude to the idea of abandonment of which she clearly suffered but she was not able to confront all the unanswered questions the therapist asked her to face. There is also a school of thought in therapy that we do not always solve our past issues by revisiting them. Sometimes it is healthier to move on. She talks about escape. Her burnt sugar was like a shell over her past maybe.
3. The Indian edition of Burnt Sugar is called Girl in White Cotton. Why do you think it has a different title in the UK?
RC: Personally, I can’t see the reason for the difference in names. I’m not sure of the relevance of burnt sugar. I think Girl in White Cotton is a more poignant title.
KC: Maybe it’s a bit cliche for a UK book to be called “girl in…” – it doesn’t really stand out as something original to me. Burnt sugar, I think, is a bit more intriguing. I’ve also gathered, from reading (I guess I should do more research to actually find out if this is true), that white has a lot more significance in Indian culture than it does here – a reason why ‘girl in white cotton’ may be more likely to be picked off of a shelf in India than in the UK. Just a suggestion.
CS: I Like Burnt Sugar because it references the diabetes angle and the toxic love and care Antara experiences from her mother. Particularly when she starts feeding her sugar despite the fact it will have on her health. Sugar is normally sweet and delicious but burnt sugar is still sweet but with a hint of bitterness.
Have you read Burnt Sugar? Do you want to know what other readers thought? Leave your own review online.
Want to know more? Download a Readers’ Guide for Burnt Sugar, including information about the author, as well as some discussion notes and themed reading.
Find out about the other books on the shortlist.