THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS / Kiran Desai. 2006 (324 pgs)
First Sentence: “All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: Traditional close third-person told in the past tense. (see random comments below)
What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The reader learns they are in a BIG place, the Himalaya to be exact, in a landscape that disappears into eternity. The reader is introduce to three of the main characters and a subtle irony: one character sits reading a National Geographic article on giant squid (an animal no human has ever seen alive) in a location that most people are only ever introduced to via the National Geographic Society’s magazine.
What the reader learns in the first ten pages: The reader is also introduced to decay; spiders, scorpions, rot, mold, disuse and neglect, both in the framework of the home and those living within it. The reader is further introduced to an Indian judge and his overly encompassing sense of privilege and power; his convent-raised sixteen-year-old granddaughter who is awaiting her algebra tutor and their Nepalese cook. The cook dreams of his son, alone in NYC. The granddaughter dreams of romance with her tutor and the judge shuts himself off from recurring memories of his past. Halfway through the first ten pages their colonial-era estate is overrun by local guerrilla fighters. They are robbed and humiliated in the process. By the end of the first chapter (which is nine pages) we have learned that these events are in the recent past; it is February 1986; India, particularly Darjeeling, is in the midst of redrawing its boarders and that for these demi-colonialists it will be impossible to maintain “life as we know it.”
Character: Desai intricately links character, event and setting as she unfolds the first ten pages. The characters we meet are those already mentioned, but there will be many more who will take the stage of this gigantic and episodic story. Each character desires change, which would be typical to reveal at the beginning of a story, but there is something huge and all encompassing in the desire for change and the need for stasis, particularly in the older characters. There is security in keeping things the way they are, no matter how broken they may be, but change is inevitable, particularly in this society in this era.
Setting: As mentioned above, the setting is crucial to the events of the story (duh) as it is crucial to the time in which the story takes place. What is unique about Desai’s telling of these events is that these people represent a much larger national and international story of the third world and its desire to emulate the first world. The setting in this story is India and the era is roughly the past one hundred years, but it feels easy to interpret that this is a story that has occurred in many ways and over many times in history.
Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: At the time I read these first ten pages and then re-read them for this review, I was unclear how the story would progress. From the liner notes and cover blurb I figured that there would be lots of characters with many intermingled storylines. And there are. What Desai does to make this large story more human and more economical is that she uses information from one character’s plot to parallel information from another’s plot, creating a feeling of universality from one person to another. But when I first read these first ten pages it seemed as if the reader was embarking on the story of a young girl trapped in the decaying household of her possessive and selfish grandfather and the native, ancient (male) cook who keeps the house from falling down on top of them, and their dog.
Random Comments: After I wrote this post I finished the rest of Desai’s novel. Incredible! At the beginning of each chapter, Desai has italicized the first word or few of the opening sentence and those words tend to convey an overall meaning for the chapter. Her chapters tend to be short and there are fifty-three of them in the novel. Designing the opening language and text gives it special meaning as if it were a heading or a title. Another word on the NARRATIVE VOICE: The traditional close third-person told in the past tense is crucial for consistency as the author tends to utilize parallel facts and events from one character to illuminate events of another’s plot line.