“I would be lying,” narrates Antara in Avni Doshi’s brilliant Booker long-listed debut, “if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.” Which reminded me of Sofia in Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk,” when she intones, “My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep.”
Levy fans, I think, will find much to enjoy in “Burnt Sugar.” This is novel of great emotional complexity, which challenges assumptions about motherhood and memory, as Antara manages the cognitive decline of her mother Tara, and struggles to reign in her burning resentment about a childhood suffused with neglect. It’s a book about love and anger, twisted like the double helix of a DNA strand.
Set in Pune, India, “Burnt Sugar” is Antara’s retelling of her tumultuous history with her mother. In her youth, Tara abandoned her loveless marriage to join an ashram, quickly married its leader, then endured a period of time as a beggar, and spent years chasing the affection of an artist — all with Antara as an unwanted passenger, who is adamant her mother never cared for her, and is infuriated that she must now demonstrate a kindness that was never bestowed upon her.
The question beating at the novel’s heart is whether Antara’s chronicle is the truth, or an edited version; her interpretation rather than an actual representation. And therefore is her anger righteous or misplaced? “Maybe she doesn’t remember because it never happened,” Antara’s grandmother suggests. The subjectivity and fragility of memory pulsates in every scene.
Doshi shows herself to be a forensically-brave writer who refuses to provide easy answers in this intensely disquieting, exquisite excavation of a relationship between a mother and daughter.
Number Of Pages: 240
Published: 14th August 2020
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd