It is unfair to judge this novel against Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, but I finished that novel in the last year sometime and it did what the very best nineteenth century novels do: it jumped from one grouping of people to another, effortlessly engaging you in their lives and making you excited to see each group again next time they pop up. It also made some very complicated and more historically distant history immediate. It sucks for Kiran Desai that Seth wrote India’s Middlemarch already, but there it is, fresh in my mind still.
The Inheritance of Loss is trying to do some of the same things–talk about how the personal is political, show how seemingly distinct groups are connected to each other in unexpected ways, show personal life against a backdrop of political turmoil, bring emotion out of the distance between generations–and the writing is lovely from page to page. It does all those things adequately. But it was hard to care about the characters. They’re mostly static: the judge long stuck in his resentment of the universe, Sai with no particular plan or direction, her tutor who suddenly jumps from shyly courting his student to furiously resenting her, the cook’s son thrown around from job to job with no apparent trajectory. What is it all for? The cook is the only one who seems to see a future, and his is vicarious. I guess the novel demonstrated the enormous losses of cultural imperialism in a tragicomic way, but not in a way I could connect to.
I ended up skimming the last quarter to find out how it all worked out and without spoiling the plot–meh. I also wish I hadn’t read the horrifying parts about the abusive marriage.