And for the full review:
Book Review: Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
I’ve been eager to read Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi since I saw the gorgeous cover revealed and it’s 2020 Booker prize standing. I didn’t know much about the book before cracking the spine but quickly learned that it was deep and lyrical with a lot of emphasis on relationships and the importance of setting, and a fair amount of gender studies sprinkled in.
From the first sentence, I knew there would be a lot that author Doshi would have to deliver to the reader: “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.” From the get go we know that this is going to be complicated and messy, exactly the kind of literature that I am drawn to. Not only that, but I do believe that it holds up to that first sentence and it’s Booker finalist standing. The book is raw and confident, the voice of the narrator Antara is funny and honest and sometimes heartbreaking.
So often in literature, we find that women’s voices fit within a stereotype and in this case, Antara (and Doshi) push that voice far beyond it. So much of my interest in the book is because of the relationship Antara has with her wild and sometimes difficult mother, Tara. I can’t recall many books that talk about the complications and nuances of mother daughter relationships like Burnt Sugar does. The fact that the novel is set in Pune India means nothing in regards to the humanity of those relationships - The relationship between Antara and Tara is universal.
Burnt Sugar is set in western India in the city of Pune and Doshi alternates between past and present. This move from when Antara is suffering and neglected is in stark contrast to the present day narrator who is married, prospering, and successful. When Antara is young, Tara sweeps her up and moves permanently to an ashram. Her daughter is often left unattended and hungry while the guru, Baba, who runs the ashram and his frenzied followers. This part of the novel was by far the most interesting and riveting (and I wished there was more of it!).
Baba is only peripherally described, but the reader can get glean enough from sections about his followers to know what he and the ashram are like. “In the ashram, Baba’s voice was soft yet thundering, and I always looked away when I heard it. He spoke about desire and joy - he said he would teach us how to know both together. I never understood how to achieve this, but as I sat watching the meditations every day, which always began in silence and ended in frenzy, I found there was a life in being a spectator instead of a participant. Each evening, as the followers broke out into cacophony and flailing, releasing whatever animals had been captive within, letting them escape into the vortex of the pyramid, I collected my various feelings, about Ma, the ashram, the moments that made up my day.” (88) By reading all of this from Antara’s childish perspective, we can see how life on the ashram was mystic and strange.
Eventually Baba dies and Tara takes Antara away from the ashram. Tara is awful and selfish and through Doshi’s raw and sparse writing we get a glimpse into how the mother feels about being a mother. This behavior continues into present day life. Despite Alzhimers, Tara continues to torment her daughter. The first time readers hear Tara’s voice she proclaims, “I cannot believe that any child of mine would have such bad handwriting.” It’s not a passing comment and it’s not a joke. She is entirely serious and these continuous criticisms continue until Tara eventually burns many of Antara’s drawings and sketches in her studio in what appears to be a possessed rage.
Although Burnt Sugar is about many things, this relationship between mother and daughter, about families, and about how love sometimes converges with obligation is central. But readers will also have the opportunity to explore themes of memory and forgetting and selfhood. We are asked to inspect what we remember, or choose to remember and why. And further, whether those memories can be trusted when remembering is “moving one step further from the original.
These sections about memory were among some of the most thought provoking. I am often questioning memories relationship with truth in my own writing, and Doshi complicates things in a really beautiful and interesting way. At a doctor’s appointment for Tara, her doctor describes memory as “a work in progress. It’s always being reconstructed.”
All this being said, about mothers and daughters, and religion (lots of this that I’ll refrain from going into in this review), and memory and truth, for me, Burnt Sugar, at its core is really about being an artist. The scene in which Tara is burning her daughters sketches is one that will stay with me for a very long time. Burnt Sugar complicates the idea of what it means to live a life of creativity. To be and claim a life of artistry. Dillip, Antara’s husband functions as the layperson in the novel. He doesn’t understand the practice of creating art and suggests that she could just make art in their guest room because he wants her to be home all day. She pushes back and asks, “Why couldn’t I make the kind of art I wanted?” Because Doshi is a talented writer and artist herself, she is able to get to the emotional core of these questions of creativity. What is it, exactly, to call oneself an artist? Further, how does one create beauty, create art, after trauma and a life of disappointment?
Souvankham Thammavongsa sums up Doshi’s writing and her ability to write about art wonderfully, so I’ll leave it at that. “Avni Doshi isn’t just a talented writer, she is an artist. She knows the difference between a line and shade — both start the same way, but intention and style inform their difference. Doshi’s sentences are sharply drawn and devastatingly precise. There is never a wasted word, no debris, no flourish to hide behind. A voice this unadorned, and blunt, is so hauntingly stubborn and original, you want to hear from it again and again.”
288 pgs | Hardcover