Because of its Booker prize short listed status, I really wanted to love this novel as great literature and gush over it. Before I read it, I planned a 5 star rating but I am here in all honesty at a 1 star. It may just not be my style of book/writing or it may be that the Booker prize short listing set a high bar and I was left hanging. I’m also wondering if maybe the Booker prize novels are not my type of books at all which is disturbing as I would like to appreciate what they are appreciating.
There are three words on the cover of my copy of ‘Burnt Sugar’ that I picked up at my local Waterstones by Fatima Bhutto, ‘Taut, unsettling, ferocious.’ I humbly disagree on all three.
It didn’t have that tension or tightly wound friction. It felt like a slow burn. Like watching a long wick of a candle catch fire and finally get to the part where it melts the wax only to fizzle out. It had a string of events with shifting time-lines, incidents and facts thrown together to make a stew of it all but nothing really gelled together. Maybe burnt sugar may have done the trick? Her take on topics such as PPD, living with overbearing in-laws, Hindu Muslim riots, abandonment, examination of Alzheimer’s disease, care-giver fatigue, re-inventing memories, are all interesting and intelligent reflections but I doubt they worked in her novel format.
It was meant to be unsettling because it depicted a troubled relationship between a mother and daughter but I felt short-changed on that aspect. It felt more like the diary of a daughter writing down all her grievances against her mother. What would have been interesting, as the blurb promised and failed to deliver was this first line: Tara remembers the past one way, Antara quite the other. However, we don’t get Tara’s viewpoint. We never explore that angle. It is just Antara and her narration of what she sees, feels and deals with in her daily grind.
Throughout the novel, I was keeping my eyes peeled for what grave ills the MC-Antara suffers as a result of her mother’s big neglect and selfishness and find out it’s nothing that hooks a great deal of sympathy out of me. This is the reason why I never warm up to her or feel invested in her story. Something that’s portrayed as a big deal in the novel is that adult Antara slept with the same man as her mother, and also at one point fancies sleeping with her biological father. Now other than it being something unsavoury about Antara’s character, it didn’t evoke a big gasp from me.
It lays out graphic details of body odours, bloody snots that are wiped on clothes, eating snots, excretions, piss and even talking about sex in a way that put me off it completely, and I’m just wondering here what purpose does all this serve?
The narrator, Antara, is clinical, cold, brutal, doesn’t love or like anyone around her, and doesn’t even feel human at times. The problem with depicting her that way is that no one cares about her in the end. We don’t develop feelings of sympathy for her.
I struggled to find a plot. It could be a character driven novel which is great but then I was not emotionally invested in the characters either. It felt a combination of everything India is associated with like Ashrams, Babas, Kali Matas, Hindu-Muslim riots, overbearing in laws, but I am sure there is much more to the vast country. At the end this didn’t work for me in a novel format. I loved some snippets of her observations or reflections in the novel. Doshi is wise, logical and analytical with topics she has attempted in the novel but she could have written a scholarly article on them instead and I would have lapped it up.