Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 12, 2020

Burnt Sugar, by Avni Doshi

It took me the best part of a week to read this slight book of 229 pages.  And that is because I considered abandoning it so many times.

Burnt Sugar was Booker longlisted, but that had passed me by because the 2020 longlist didn’t excite me, and I forgot about it until it made its way to the top of the review pile.  This is the blurb, so you can see why I found it enticing:

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, choking cord of memory and myth that binds two women together, making and unmaking them endlessly.

What I was expecting, was narration by the mother, the older woman sliding into dementia, explaining the choices she made which were so detrimental to her daughter’s wellbeing. What the book delivers is a torrent of grievances from a narcissistic daughter preoccupied by the legacy of her toxic mother.  What irritated me most of all was that this preoccupation was focussed on the mother, as if Antara did not have two parents, both of whom abrogated their responsibility for their child.  The text goes so far as to include a (most unpleasant) thought bubble about having a sexual relationship with her father as if to reinforce how un-fatherly he has been, but he is not the focus of the narrator’s angst.  Mothers who seek self-fulfilment which impacts badly on their children are the betrayers.  Fathers who do the same are a side issue.

As the text progresses, it becomes clearer that the narrator is disintegrating under the pressure of societal expectation that she will care for her mother.  There is a great deal of preoccupation with smells, food and eating, woven into her fixation with getting her mother to acknowledge the damage she has caused.  Antara is incapable of having satisfying relationships with anybody: not her dull but patient and accommodating husband Dilip; not her one remaining school friend, not the mother-substitute at the ashram Kali Mata, and not her own unfortunate daughter Anikka.  (The catalyst for this unwanted child is Antara’s realisation that if Dilip leaves her, she has been out of the workforce so long, she won’t get a job.  A child, she decides, will bind him to her.)

If you like reading novels about dysfunctional relationships, you may relish this.  I’m still not sure why I persisted with it, and my first reaction to turning the last page was to look for a book to banish the sourness of it.

The Booker judges, however, thought it worthy of longlisting, and there are plenty of reviews which praise its merits.

Shahdidha Bari calls it electrifyingly truthful at The Guardian.  Bidisha also at The Guardian says it’s a thrilling ride into hell. 

Wamuwi Mbao  at the JRB calls it an oddly-moving piece of fiction.

Author: Avni Doshi
Title: Burnt Sugar
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2020
ISBN: 9780241441510, pbk., 229 pages
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House Australia


Responses

  1. Nope. Glad you read it so I won’t need to. I had heard of it but only in the text of it being listed as one of the Booker hopefuls. I am tired of dysfunctional families. Probably not over The Erratics yet. I’m still in Pollyanna mode. Happy family, loving parents, wiggily puppy. Enjoy your weekend.🎄🐧🎄

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL It’s all part of the service here at ANZ LitLovers!
      I hope the weather is lovely in Tassie too, it’s a gorgeous day here in Melbourne and I am about to take Amber out for a walk to enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I may read it at some stage. But not now. It’s been a depressing couple of weeks (on top of such an awful year) and I need escapism, not realism. For now.

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    • I’m sorry to hear that, Jennifer, I hope those long walks are bringing you some comfort.
      (And no, this is definitely not a book for anyone having a rough time.)

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  3. Now I’m beginning to regret buying this. It was a spur of the moment decision but doesn’t sound like a wise one given your reaction.

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    • Well, don’t forget that many others think highly of it. My advice would be to wait for a good time to read it, you may react differently to me.

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  4. Well, I bought it because of my own difficult relationship with my mother so remains to be seen how I feel about it. But warning taken on board!

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    • I’m lucky I have a son not a daughter, I reckon!

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  5. Thanks for taking one for the team.
    I’m not in the mood for dysfunctional relationships.

    And I agree with you, mothers bear all the guilt.

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  6. I’ve heard lots of good thing about this but having read the blurb it just did not sound like a story I was interested in reading. Your review has confirmed that. Thank you 🙏

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    • The more I think about it, the more I am baffled about why anybody would want to write something as warped as this…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I don’t have a dysfunctional relationship with my mother or my daughters, but perhaps that’s just because I’m oblivious (or because I’m a guy and that gives me a free pass). I’ve given up on books valued by prize judges, they’re obviously looking for something that I’m not.

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    • I think we are going through a phase in writing schools, in publishing and awards, where narcissism rules, and the preoccupation is with awful lives, each one more awful than the last. Inevitably, some of these are good, well-written novels, but equally inevitably, a lot of it is dreary dross. No wonder so many people are depressed and unhappy if this is their reading diet. I’m reading Richard Fidler’s Sagaland to clear my head of this one.

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  8. Um. For all the problems you cite with the narrative I think I won’t be going near this (and I admire you for finishing it). Particularly your point about there being two parents for a child, and so two who should take responsibility. I don’t want to read all happy-clappy, superficial stuff, but this sounds just depressing…

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    • Exactly. Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m no Pollyanna, (though there’s a time and a place for being one, it’s a handy tool to have in the mental health kitbag) but these things are all the same: I’m sad. It’s someone else’s fault. The End.
      If I had my way, I’d make all the writing schools teach one of Fay Weldon’s early novels. We women had A Lot to be sad and angry about back then, but she had a way of skewering the issue and making us laugh at the same time.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Yep, some authors of synopsis are so good, that you want to devour a book, and then you realize the synopsis may have been the best part!!

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  10. Thanks for taking this one for the team Lisa.
    I had been mildly interested in reading it, for the fraught mother-daughter dynamic, but can safely leave it on the shelf now.

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    • LOL Maybe the team could write the mother-daughter novel that’s needed…

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Pass!

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  12. […] Land was just what I needed after the unedifying experience of reading Burnt Sugar.  It’s a travel book of sorts: a memoir of time spent in Iceland, where ABC radio presenter […]

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