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"I would be lying if I said my mother's misery has never given me pleasure..."
So begins Burnt Sugar... As far as opening lines go, it doesn’t get catchier than that. I was gripped from the outset and stayed invested till the very last page.
Published earlier in India as Girl in White Cotton, has been nominated for the Booker Prize and I’m super pleased as it is by far one of the best books I’ve read in recent months. On a personal level, the fact that Avni Doshi is based in Dubai makes me extra proud and I’ll be rooting for it for the Booker win.
At the heart of the novel is a complex mother-daughter relationship. The mother, Tara, is losing her memory and that prompts her daughter Antara to relive her own traumatic childhood. Antara is deeply resentful of her mother for her unconventional life choices that flew in the face of everything society expected of her and exposed her daughter to trauma and a sense of abandonment. For a while they lived in an ashram in Pune where Tara became a concubine to the guru and had very little to do with Antara. These are perhaps the most heart-wrenching parts of the story and even though Antara isn’t a very likeable, or even reliable, narrator, your heart goes out to the little girl she once was. The title of the Indian edition Girl in White Cotton is a nod to the fact that the devotees at the ashram all wore white and for Antara this was one of the things that took her away from everything she cared about. I won’t tell you the significance of the other title Burnt Sugar, as figuring it out is one of the "Aha!" moments in the book.
The two women are presented as inverses of each other but increasingly we are left feeling that perhaps they are not so different from each other after all. As the story progresses, we begin to question some of what Antara is telling us as the narrator and we also begin to see things from Tara’s point of view. Things come full circle for Antara when she has her own baby girl.
Burnt Sugar is beautifully written, the prose is lyrical but never superfluous. The book questions the subjective and constructed nature of our memories and consequently our traumas. The insights drew me in, repulsed me and had me at the edge of my seat. Something I was not expecting was the ending. It was one of those surprise endings which makes you want to rush to discuss the book with someone else. A perfect book club read.
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Tamreez Innam is Head of Education Initiatives at the Emirates Literature Foundation. Her favourite genre is literary fiction. You can find her talking about books over on Instagram.