Genre: Domestic fiction
Originally Published: 2019
No. of Pages: 240
Avni Doshi immediately found acclaim for her debut novel Burnt Sugar as it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. First published in India under the title Girl in White Cotton, I was certainly excited to read it when I received it as a Christmas gift.
Burnt Sugar centres on the trajectory of a mother-daughter relationship. Set in Pune, India, a restless mother, Tara, abandons her marriage and finds temporary satisfaction in an ashram where she begins an affair with the guru leader. Engulfed in her latest love interest and the frenzied rituals of the ashram, Tara fails to care for her young daughter who is frequently left starving and alone. As the story shifts three decades later, Tara is suffering from dementia. An ironic unfairness where Tara’s past is dissolving from her memories, yet Antara is left still reeling from her mother’s past mistakes. Doshi brings to light an important question: how do you care for someone who neglected caring for you?
Narrated from Antara’s perspective, the story gradually plunges deeper into the reasons and circumstances for her and her mother’s frail relationship. Antara is often found in emotional turmoil, battling between her divergent emotions. Where she attempts to show love for her mother, she also refuses to as feelings of resentment and pain overpower.
The timescale of the novel alternates between past and present events. Doshi is successful in using this structure as it highlights how interlaced Tara and Antara are, despite their desires to be as different from each other as possible, the power of generational trauma, and the inescapable past.
What I found particularly noteworthy was Doshi’s unique writing style. Antara is a highly observant individual who scrutinises and analyses almost every detail. As a result, the novel is saturated with rich descriptions, even those of the minutest significance, and powerful sensory images.
The characters of Tara and Antara are equally mesmerising, yet I did not feel the same way about the other supporting characters, such as Antara’s husband Dilip, her grandparents and friends. I was not able to connect and empathise with these characters, however maybe that was Doshi’s intention. Maybe she wanted us to feel Antara’s inability of not being able to truly feel a connection with anyone else other than her mother.
While this is certainly not a feel-good novel, it is a powerful insight into familial relationships and the mental and emotional long-lasting impacts they can have on us. I think Doshi did an amazing job with her first-ever novel.