A cranky judge, a rattled cook, a romance gone awry light up a rich, layered novel of India on the edge.
With her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss
(Atlantic Monthly), Kiran Desai has written a sprawling and delicate book, like an ancient landscape glittering in the rain. It focuses on one crumbling household in northern India, the Himalayas watching over the story like distant gods. There is a mean and increasingly vulnerable retired judge as paterfamilias, his 16-year-old orphaned granddaughter, and the frightened, scheming cook who is their last remaining servant. Stories radiate from each of these characters: from their pasts, from their romances, from the adventures of the cook's son as an illegal immigrant in America, each of the threads leading toward a core of love, longing, futility, and loss that is Desai's true territory.
Desai has a touch for alternating humor and impending tragedy that one associates with the greatest writers, and her prose is uncannily beautiful, a perfect balance of lyricism and plain speech. Hers is not a linear sensibility but a comprehensive one, and she has a flawless ear for the different castes, the different generations, the worlds of Anglophilic sisters at tea and illegal immigrants arguing in a bakery in Harlem. Novels have two aims, Flannery O'Connor once wrote, to reveal mystery and manners, and Desai has mastered both.