Orange Prize Winner

I am informed, via text message, that the winner of this year’s Orange Prize is …

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My reaction: eh. Of the four shortlisted books that I read, it was the one I liked least by some margin.

EDIT: According to The Guardian, “The two shortlisted titles believed to have come closest to beating Half of a Yellow Sun are The Inheritance of Loss and the Chinese author Xiaolu Guo’s tender romantic comedy A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.” So at least my favourite was in the running.

Arlington Park

There seems to be something about the shortlists for juried awards that invites explanation. When it comes to the Clarke Award, for instance, spectators will quite often — and often quite confidently — pick out “the core sf book”, “the mainstream book”, and so on, as though the shortlist was an act of design. The truth, of course, is that shortlists aren’t chosen with such considerations in mind; but there is still something about the act of shortlisting that divides, rather than unites. As soon as you’ve said that these six books are the six best sf novels (or whatever) of the year, what separates them becomes more interesting than what they share. When it comes to the Orange Prize, we might tongue-in-cheek say that the slots to be filled include “the historical novel”, “the romance”, and “the domestic novel” — and then put Rachel Cusk’s Arlington Park neatly in the latter. But straight away, comparison to, say, The Accidental (which was on last year’s shortlist, and could quite easily be described as domestic, and is enormously different in style and tone) makes it obvious that this apparently-narrow category is, like all literary categories, infinitely divisible.

Conveniently for me, Arlington Park is itself an attempt to make a similar point. It switches between a handful of women, but is set in one place, over the course of one day, a formal choice that says: look at these women, see how they’re all nominally the same but in fact living such different lives. Look how divisible, how capacious, are the categories “wife” and “mother”. The prologue frames the novel with an explicitly panoramic portrait of a generic English city, “its streets always crawling with indiscriminate life … too mercilessly dramatic … to look at that view you’d think that a human life was meaningless. You’d think that a day meant nothing at all” (4-5). But, it is implied, you’d be wrong, and so we begin our tour, visiting Juliet (and husband Benedict), Amanda (and husband James), Christine (and husband Joe), Solly (and husband Martin) and Maisie (and husband Dom) in turn, as they walk their different paths through their Friday, variously taking in a school run, a coffee morning, a trip to a mall (has the Americanism really become so widespread?), a literary club, putting the children to bed, and a dinner party. It’s an uneven novel, sometimes interesting, sometimes less so, but crucially we aren’t allowed to forget that frame. At the half-way mark comes another impersonal panorama, this time of a park at lunchtime, where mothers observe “The whole mechanism of the world, running on, running like a machine … for them, it was a form of agony to watch it … the women were as though snared in the mechanism … every movement caused them pain” (147-8). (Sure, Tiptree said it better and more succinctly, but it’s still a powerful image.) And it’s true: the women of Arlington Park are weighed down by the burdens of marriage and (perhaps particularly) motherhood; but they are stoics, or so it seems at first. The pain never makes them scream.

Closing the frame, towards the end of the book one character experiences “a sense of perspective, of the reach of the universe, of its strange but necessary dimensions. It was this sense of order,” she concludes, “that allowed life in Arlington Park to be what it was” (222). As it is with Arlington Park, so it is with Arlington Park, because the boldest thing about the novel is that most of its characters are boring or unpleasant or both; they represent the smuggest of the smug middle-classes, variously petty, hypocritical, bigoted, bitter, heroically self-absorbed, or some combination of the above (there is the occasional punk hairdresser or peroxide-haired au pair, but such women are distinctly marginal in this town). They refuse sympathy to such an extent that I think Cusk only pulls off the trick — and then only barely — because of the presence of that external perspective, which allows us to acknowledge her women without, necessarily, judging them.

Take Maisie, who as the book’s outsider — she has recently moved to Arlington Park with her husband, in an attempt to escape the London rat-race — might be expected to be someone the reader can take as a guide. No such luck. After another samey day of housewifely ennui, she is so thoroughly ennervated that Dom’s arrival home from work causes her to experience “a vertiginous sense of event” (169); she is so thoroughly dissociated from her life that it feels like a play, as though she and Dom are acting out roles of “husband” and “wife”. But her neurosis has become unreasonable. When Dom offers to get the children ready for bed (because they’re going, like most of the rest of the characters, to a dinner party at Christine and Joe’s place), she says no, she’ll do it; but when he comments on the time (“Did you realise it’s seven-fifteen?”)

She rose, wondering why he didn’t put the children to bed himself if he cared so much what the time was. She guessed the answer was that he had taken her at her word: she had said she would do it. He probably thought there was some important, sentimental reason why, a reason that might even have been himself, tired at the end of his week’s work: if this were so, it struck her as sad that he had to fabricate her generosity towards him out of so little material, or make a point of honour out of something that didn’t really exist. (182)

Bear in mind that Maisie and Dom have just had a reasonably lengthy conversation; that Dom has done the washing-up Maisie created during the day; that Dom has explicitly asked Maisie what’s wrong, and refused to take “everything’s fine” for an answer (but gave up when he didn’t get any further). It is, for sure, impressive that we don’t immediately condemn Maisie for her own stupidity in refusing to talk to her husband — the husband she loves, and who shows every sign of loving her — because Cusk has so effectively conveyed the weight of situation (and perhaps guilt, given that it was Maisie’s choice to leave London) that has put Maisie in this bind. If she’s done so in a rather long-winded and ennervating fashion, well, it could be argued that’s only an accurate reflection of Maisie’s experience. But it’s also an incredibly alienating choice of characterisation, particularly in light of the later strong hints that Dom is not oblivious, that he knows how Maisie feels and is trying his best to be there for her. Maisie’s inability to look up — to see the bigger picture that Cusk reminds us is there, to see the way out of the situation she has created for herself — is, deliberately, infuriating; deliberately pushes us away from sympathy.

The same tension is there with almost every other character. All of them have been trapped, largely by their own choices, into a comfortable life they now chafe against. Some of them despair, some of them have perfected almost Stockholm Syndrome levels of doublethink. But none of them are glossed. All of them come with warts. Amanda’s morbid thoughts are numbing; the rather touching relationship that Solly starts to develop with her lodger, Paola, is soured by the casually racist assumptions she makes when advertising the vacancy. (She advertises for “a foreigner”, because disruptive children underfoot “won’t seem so bad” to them, 114.) The most thoroughly ambiguous character is perhaps Juliet Randall. She nurtures a deep feminist anger about her life, and about what she sees as the casual way in which her husband “[runs] off their joint life as if it were a generator fuelled by [her]” (11), yet never actually does anything about it — never screams out at the pain caused by the world-machine; never, for instance, even talks to her husband about it — and draws only the most extreme conclusions. “All men are murderers … They take a woman, and little by little they murder her.” (It crossed my mind that the confluence of the initials “JR” and this level of anger may not be a coincidence, may be a nod to Joanna Russ and The Female Man, in which all the characters, including a domestically-trapped one are JRs; but if it is a nod, I can’t help feeling it’s a somewhat ambivalent one.) Juliet’s “secret life” is the literary club she runs, one Friday afternoon a month, at the school where she works part-time. Her passion for this part of her life is admirable; her didacticism perhaps a little less so. “They were meant to select the book for the next month’s discussion by committee,” we are told, “but unrepentantly Juliet steered them towards works that represented the truth, as she saw it, of female experience” (154). It’s hard not to feel that Juliet is treating literature, and the reading group, as an echo chamber, seeking validation for her anger, rather than taking the opportunity to look out at the wide world, to see what others have seen. There is a suggestion, late on, that she realises this, that she is going to at last do something to improve her life; but here, unlike with Maisie, Cusk’s characterisation failed me: it’s hard to believe that Juliet really has woken from the nightmare of her life.

This may all sound a little second-hand: it may be meant to. Everything in Arlington Park echoes; everything carries the sense that it has happened before, and will happen again. There’s even a moment of admiration for a plastic bag tormented by gusts of wind, American Beauty-style, although no reference to Desperate Housewives. When Christine, at a coffee morning hosted by Amanda (and deftly choreographed by Cusk, given the number of characters present), exclaims “It’s not what you’d think, it it? I say to Joe, look, it can get really heavy on a coffee morning, you don’t believe me but it can” (70), the reader’s immediate response (or at least, my immediate response) is: oh, it’s exactly what I’d think. Ersatz conversations about ersatz lives. Sure enough, Christine’s relentless positivity (tainted, once again, by various stripes of bigotry) is revealed as something, well, a little more desperate: she feels “the vulnerability of her grasp on the real, the authentic life” (81), except that — oh, black black humour — her version of “the authentic life” is Arlington Park. Christine lives with “dread, the terror of falling into shadow, of going back to where she’d been before” (214-5), and her apparent optimism, which is at first nakedly ridiculous — she claims “the people I see [in Arlington Park] every day are the most diverse, interesting, courageous group of people you’ll find anywhere!”, when everything in the book indicates the opposite — gradually becomes something more tragic. She may not believe in herself, but she believes in her friends, in their lives, in their happiness, or forces herself to believe, and she’s damned if she’s going to disappoint them.

Christine perhaps has more in common with Juliet and Maisie than any of them would suspect (if only they would talk!), or perhaps has just fallen further. They are a category after all, even if divided: all of them are worn down by a daily grind and the resentment it inspires, all of them come to know, to a greater or less extent, that there is more out there, even if it doesn’t know or care about them. Christine’s epiphany, which crowns the novel, actually has some force, despite its drunken belatedness. “You’ve got to love life,” she confides to Benedict, at the party, “You’ve got to love just — being alive.” “But how will anyone know you loved it?” he asks, and Christine replies, with pathetic truth, “Why would anyone need to know that?” (237) If Arlington Park is less than the sum of its parts — and it is; you may have noticed I’ve said almost nothing about Amanda and Solly, and there’s a reason for that — then some of the parts do justify the whole, just about. But it’s a curious experience. We look up from the last page frustrated and fascinated, wanting to scream, both at these women and on their behalf; but, like them, we are too tired.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Ursula Le Guin is two for two. It was her review of Jan Morris’ Hav that first pointed me in the direction of that wonderful book; and likewise her review that persuaded me to add Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which turns out to be nearly as good, to my wish-list. It is, of course, a love story, between a young Chinese woman and an older English man. 23 year-old Zhaung Xiao Qiao arrives in the UK one February (2003, I think), nervous and alone, fearing the future, to learn English at a school in Holburn, hardly even understanding why her parents have sent her. A little over a month into her stay she meets a man at a cinema in South Kensington, falls easily and comprehensively in love, and as a result of a miscommunication ends up moving in with him. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is Z’s story over the following year, up to the point where her visa expires. It’s presented as a diary-stroke-language-notebook; Z carries with her a Chinese-English dictionary, and later, a Collins Concise English Dictionary, at all times, and often refers to them in her attempts to understand and describe the world around her. Chapter headings (e.g. “romance”) are taken from the latter, with accompanying definitions (“fantasy, fiction, legend, novel, story, tale; exaggeration, falsehood, lie; ballad, idyll, song”), and the whole thing is written in the second person, addressed to the never-named man.

Which inevitably means that the most immediate thing about the book is the language in which it’s written. Here, for example, is part of Z’s first encounter with a full English breakfast:

What is this ‘baked beans’? White colour beans, in orange sticky sweet sauce. I see some baked bean tins in shop when I arrive to London yesterday. Tin food is very expensive to China. Also we not knowing how to open it. So I never ever try tin food. Here, right in front of me, this baked beans must be very expensive. Delicacy is baked beans. Only problem is, tastes like somebody put beans into mouth but spit out and back into plate. (17)

I concede this is probably the prose equivalent of Marmite, but I love it: particularly the innocent directness, the seeing-for-the-first-time-ness of it. Leaving aside the question of taste for a moment, however, there might also seem to be a question of authenticity. On the one hand, the artifice of this sort of writing, bad in very specific ways, is obvious: for example, it’s hard to believe that Z’s grammar would be so bad while her spelling is impeccable (although a few artfully misheard nouns are dropped into the text every so often — “rocksack”, “peterfile”). On the other hand, the book apparently grew out of a diary Guo herself kept when she moved to London (Concise Dictionary is her first novel to be written in English, although her seventh in total), which raises various questions but does at least suggest that the portrayal of the learning process is likely to be accurate. And an aspect that may seem the most contrived — the present tense; bear in mind that these are not Z’s thoughts as she is having them, they are entries written later in her notebook — is a consequence of incompletely translating Chinese thought into English. “Chinese, we not having grammar,” Z explains. “We saying things simple way. No verb-change usage, no tense differences, no gender changes. We bosses of our language” (24). The fact that Guo conveys the difficulties of translation so lightly is one of the most impressive things about the book, for me, and I think you have to respect at least that, even if you find Z’s voice to be nails-down-chalkboard grating. She does, of course, learn over the course of the year, but her position as a naive teller of truths never changes. This, for instance, is another breakfast, in Berlin:

The early morning air feels cold, like autumn coming. Occasionally, one or two old mans in a long coats walk aimlessly in the street, with the cigarettes in their lips. Under the highway there is bridge. By the bridge there is a sausage shop, lots of large mans queue there to get hot sausages. Gosh, they eat purely sausage in the morning! Even worse than English Breakfast. The morning wind is washing my brain, and my small body. This is a city with something really heavy and serious in its soul. This is a city which had big wars in the history. And, I feel, this is a city made for mans, and politics, and disciplines. Like Beijing. (218)

Again, it’s characteristic of Z’s writing — the fresh phrases that seem careless (“The morning wind is washing my brain”), the odd but valid word choices (“Gosh”), the unabashedly obvious observations (“This is a city which had big wars in the history”). There is something memorable on nearly every page of the book. Walking home one night, Z observes that “Also, the robbers robbing the people even poorer than them. In China we believe ‘rob the rich to feed the poor’. But robbers here have no poetry” (42). They may not, but Z does – the poetry of an acute observer, plain in everything from her descriptions of a pub to her consternation on discovering that her man is a vegetarian, to her reaction to a David Lynch double bill. In a number of ways, Z is not an easy character to love — apart from anything else, she is stubborn, and rude – but she is always sharply aware and, at least from a reader’s remove, inescapably charming.

Which is not to imply that this is always a comfortable book, though it is one with an extremely generous view of human nature (certainly in contrast to, oh I don’t know, The Inheritance of Loss). By far the majority of the people Z encounters are good-hearted, even if they sometimes can’t resist teasing her; only twice, during a solo jaunt around Europe, does she encounter someone who tries to take advantage of her, and while the encounters are unpleasant, they are not irretrievably horrific. And if Z is frequently baffled by the world she finds around her, she is not intimidated by it. In fact, she is often indignant in the face of it. “English is a sexist language … always talking about mans, no womans” (26), she observes — although despite this awareness her view of what constitutes a relationship is extremely conservative (at least in our terms; more on this below). Moreover, she’s always conscious of the distance between herself and her man: “You a man of free world. I am not free, like you” (113); “In the West, in this country, I am barbarian, illiterate peasant girl, a face of third world, and irresponsible foreigner” (153); “You are boss of yourself, so you have dignity” (184). Strung together like that, such moments look obtrusive, but in fact they are more often grace notes to scenes about other things. Which is to say that they describe the reality of Z’s life — we’re put in her man’s shoes; we can’t ignore what she says — but not the extent of it. (Again, the contrast with Desai’s novel couldn’t be more striking.)

The fear at the heart of such worries, though, inevitably informs her relationship. Here we come back to love. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is built around a distinction expressed with particular elegance, to my mind, in KJ Bishop’s The Etched City, between love that exists “as a mutal sentiment or not at all” and implies “a voluntary blending of identities”, and love that denotes “two travellers meeting, enjoying each other’s company, then parting and moving on.” Z and her man do love, with joy and vigour, but — it becomes increasingly clear — in different ways, ways that have an awful lot to do with their differing backgrounds. To Z, love is a mutual act, a commitment that abolishes privacy and (for example) entitles her to read her man’s diaries, and enables her to blithely tell him that she’s done so. Love is about creating a home, a family, and a future: the three are inextricably related, aspects of an incompletely translated cultural inheritance, and lead to the conservatism I mentioned earlier. Love as security, as community. But the man Z has fallen in love with is more casual — as Z notes, he can afford to be. He is something of a bohemian, an artist who’s drifted through his life believing “the future only comes when it comes”, that nothing is forever; he values his independence. To him, love is about the preciousness of the present moment, not the promise of the future.

In other words, the lovers occupy positions opposite to those staked out by their native languages, an irony that defines their relationship. Z is so engaging that we badly want to see her grow into a more complete sense of self: but we fear that in doing so she will almost certainly doom her relationship, despite the fact that said relationship is the original catalyst for her growth. In fact it is specifically the physical relationship that is the catalyst. Z’s descriptions of sex, whether going right or going wrong, are as refreshingly matter-of-fact as her descriptions of everything else; and though her initial understanding, both of the act and the emotional paraphernalia it requires, is limited, she’s a quick study. She goes to a peep show, and has a lot of sex with her lover, and starts to explore her own body, and along the way she begins to believe in her own independence. More and more, this (as we feared it might) hems her into an absurd, uplifting, heartbreaking paradox: a catch-22 of love. Almost miraculously, Guo finds an honest resolution — one good enough that the other books shortlisted for the Orange Prize are going to have to go some if they want to replace A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers in my affections.

The Inheritance of Loss

If I wanted to give a habitual science fiction reader a novel that would reinforce all their prejudices about the world beyond the ghetto walls, I don’t think I could do much better than to give them a copy of The Inheritance of Loss. Kiran Desai’s second novel starts well enough: the first chapter, with its evocation of a mist-shrouded house in the northeastern Himalayas, builds a world (in exactly the way a good sf novel does, in fact) by carefully layering observation on incident. In the foreground is Sai, 17, reading National Geographic, musing on love and her affair with her maths tutor, Gyan; in the background are a judge and his cook, both stripped of names (except when we get access to their thoughts, later). It is the start of 1986, a few months before the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front organises a demonstration calling for a separate state (the region, we are told, “had always been a messy map”, 9); a few months before two years of disruption and violence. There is a symptom of the troubles to come: a gang of boys come to the house and steal the judge’s guns. The incident is troubling and tense.

A few days and two hundred pages later, a drunk is accused of the theft, arrested and beaten. In between and afterwards there is relatively little present-tense action; the focus is on a succession of elegantly interleaved flashbacks. This structure is actually the best thing about the book, although for Desai to highlight one character’s foolishness by having her express a preference for “Old-fashioned books […] Not the new kind of thing, no beginning, no middle, no end, just a thread of … free-floating plasma” (217) is perhaps a little too knowing for my taste. We dip in and out of the lives of the characters we’ve met, and a few more we come to know, and occasionally take a trip to America, where the cook’s son, Biju, is scrounging a living. For most of its length, this latter strand is extremely effective: every chapter in the novel is a collage of short scenes, most only a few paragraphs long, and the cut-and-paste effect suits the unsettled nature of Biju’s life. He’s squeezed from one to another New York kitchen, every kitchen equally grubby, equally detailed, and equally stuffed to the gills with migrant workers wrapped up in their own schemes and rivalries. Biju himself is consistently dazzled by the world — “How,” he wonders, “had he learned nothing growing up?” (22) — and his life is dismayingly credible; it certainly highlights, for example, the frictionless nature of a not-dissimilar migration in Hari Kunzru’s Transmission.

It’s back in the subcontinent, with the other characters, that the troubles with the novel set in. The beauty to which Desai’s prose aspires is a civilised beauty: long, languid sentences, gentle and descriptive. Sometimes it works; too often, to my mind, it feels overworked. Of Sai and Gyan’s courtship, which starts during tutorials, Desai writes, “how delicious the pretense of objective study, miraculous how it could eat up the hours.” Fine so far. But then: “as they eliminated the easily revealable and exhausted propriety, the unexamined portions of their anatomies exerted a more severely distilled potential” (125). This is, perhaps, an attempt to recast their courtship in the physical-science terms Gyan is teaching Sai, but it seems to me far too coy, far too self-aware to take seriously. Later, a character “traversed along flat main roads” (181): traversed? Really? Could he not, more specifically, walk or run or ride or drive? And earlier, a mother having bid her son farewell “was weeping because she had not estimated the imbalance between the finality of goodbye and the briefness of the last moment” (36): does that really get to the heart of a mother’s grief, or is it — as I can’t help thinking — just a long-winded way of stating the obvious? Worse still is some of the dialogue, notably some of the exchanges between Gyan and Sai. Here is one during a rumbling argument:

She yawned again, elaborately like a lion, letting it bloom forward. Then he did also, a meager yawn he tried to curb and swallow.
She did–
He did.
“Bored by physics?” she asked, encouraged by the apparent reconciliation.
“No. Not at all.”
“Why are you yawning then?”
Stunned silence. (163)

Stunned silence from Sai, at least; snickering from this reader, at such a spectacularly inept — and jarring, in context — depiction of late-teen sulkiness. To be fair, Gyan is not the only character who gets to speak in block capitals. Later on, for instance, we get this

WHAT ARE YOU SAYING????!!!” the judge yelled. (319)

He’s drunk, of course, and has every right to be angry, but I can’t help thinking that if a writer needs to resort to block capitals and italics and eleventy-one style punctuation to make that point clear then their actual words aren’t doing as much work as they should be. (Or at the very least, they don’t need to tell us that the person talking in block capitals and italics with eleventy-one style punctuation is yelling.)

Maybe I’m being too harsh: The Inheritance of Loss is a very inward-looking novel, with far more internal monologues and passages of description than exchanges of dialogue, which despite the rough patches mentioned above plays to Desai’s strengths. Here is Gyan falling in with the GNLF, just a few pages before the exchange of dialogue above:

As he floated through the market, Gyan had a feeling of history being wrought, its wheels churning under him, for the men were behaving as if they were being featured in a documentary of war, and Gyan could not help but look on the scene already from the angle of nostalgia, the position of a revolutionary. But then he was pulled out of the feeling, by the ancient and usual scene, the worried shopkeepers watching from their monsoon-stained grottos. Then he shouted along with the crowd, and the very mingling of his voice with largeness and lustiness seemed to create a relevancy, an affirmation he’d never felt before, and he was pulled back into the making of history. (157)

This, I think, does convey the tentative fervour of a youth desperate to live a life that signifies: Gyan floating, not walking (or traversing), torn between his longing and the immediacy of the real, that “lustiness” tellingly close to “an affirmation he’d never felt before”: good stuff. But it’s immediately followed by ruminations of a kind repeated by almost every character in the novel at one time or another, on the desire for and impossibility of escape, “free from family demands and the built-up debt of centuries.” Which leads to another reservation.

For the characters in The Inheritance of Loss, escape is impossible and misery is birthright. Sai’s parents — before they die — are filled with the same loneliness as their daughter; the son whose mother was bidding farewell earlier in this review botches his goodbye, and we learn that “Never again would he know love for a human being that wasn’t adulterated by another, contradictory emotion” (37). (The son grows up to be the judge, arranged into a loveless marriage that descends into rape and other abuses.) The cook is an old man with no fulfillment in his own life, desperate that his son do better than he did; this pressure is eventually Biju’s undoing. Sai’s tutor before Gyan is Noni, a spinster who “never had love at all” (68). And so on, for the entire cast. It’s an old story: “Certain moves made long ago,” we are told, “had produced all of them” (199). They are, if you like, variations on an absence of dignity: children, criminals, and buffoons. And too often that’s all they are — or at least the rest is hidden, the civilised sheen of Desai’s prose obscuring the extent of the violence done to their lives by circumstance.

It is not entirely surprising to me that the inhabitants of the real Kalimpong have objected to their counterparts’ portrayal in the book. The cast of The Inheritance of Loss are buffeted and bewildered by the world, with no initiative to speak of, nor (apparently) any capacity to learn; quite often they’re not even paying attention. Sai and Gyan completely miss “the important protest”, which is to say they miss the defining moment of the novel’s historical context. Whatever my reservations about the generosity with which a book like, say, Geoff Ryman’s The King’s Last Song treats its characters, it’s hard not to prefer such an approach to one that ultimately comes to feel capriciously mean. Desai tries her best to convince us that her characters are “just ordinary humans in ordinary opaque boiled-egg light, without grace, without revelation” (259), and that this justifies their fatalism. But the litany of misfortunes that make up the book’s final fifty pages verges on parody, manipulative in the extreme but too obviously controlled to really sting; imagine I ARE SERIOUS BOOK stamped on the cover and you’ll be thinking along the right lines.

It’s not that Desai scrupulously avoids offering an answer, or answers, to the problems of global inequality that gives me trouble — to do otherwise would arguably be presumptuous, and she mines good material from her stance, such as one character’s painful realisation that he can only live a Western life by cutting off his countrymen, “or they would show up reproachful, pointing out to him the lie that he had become” (306). But The Inheritance of Loss denies even the possibility of meaningful change. Over and above the inconsistent loquaciousness of the prose, the near-absence of narrative drive, and the passivity of the characters (a consequence, I can’t help thinking, of the book’s ideologicial fixedness), this is what I expect would stick in most sf readers’ craws. And rightly. Sai’s ultimate epiphany — “The simplicity of what she’d been taught wouldn’t hold. Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that this narrative belonged only to herself” (323) — is pitifully empty, not just because any half-awake reader will have got there at least a couple of hundred pages earlier, if not before they ever open the book, but because Desai has so thoroughly drummed home that there’s nothing Sai can do to change her fate. All Sai’s achieved is to wake up to the same awareness that the rest of the book’s characters have been struggling with: her life does not belong to herself, because the West distorts and robs all those who come into contact with it, now and forever: the end.