As soon as I saw that a South Asian woman was nominated for last year’s Booker Prize, I just knew I had to read Burnt Sugar.
Burnt Sugar follows Antara and her ageing mother, Tara, who is facing a slow decline as she battles with early onset dementia. It’s clear that Antara cares for her mother, but throughout she battles between loving and hating the woman who raised her. Throughout the book there are lots of flashbacks to earlier periods of Antara’s life where the reader is afforded a glimpse into their history and the development of their fraught relationship.
In terms of Burnt Sugar’s literary merits, I was impressed by its exploration of memories, how we return to them and whether they change over time. Part of this is explored through Antara’s art project whereby she recreates the same portrait from memory and over time the face begins to alter. The thing that gripped me most by this narrative was the question of whether or not Tara is actually sick and if Antara’s paranoia makes her an unreliable narrator. I loved Antara as a narrator.
After reading a book, I always check Goodreads to see what others have said about it. Reading the reviews of this one was in equal parts amusing and exhausting. A lot of people have used the words “disgusting” and “nauseous” to describe this book’s descriptions of excrement and sex. To that I say, grow up. A few people also said they felt disconnected from the characters within this book, for example, one reviewer calls Antara a “heartless bitch of a narrator”. I apologise if this is an annoying take, but it did make me wonder whether this person would have had the same opinion of Antara if she was a man. I can’t say.
Other people have taken issue with the evil mother-in-law trope which has become a bit of a cliché in South Asian lit. Maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but I don’t think that just because something is a stereotype, it should never be used again. Nevertheless, I do find it strange when people pick out very minor aspects of a book and blow their significance way out of proportion. By no means is Burnt Sugar a book about oppressive in-laws and stifling marital expectations, and if it was I probably wouldn’t like it very much. Unlike the reviews would have you believe, it is actually a book about an unconventional mother-daughter relationship set in contemporary Pune, West India. Now, where is the stereotype in that?
I’ve read Bookstagram reviews which have demonstrated disappointment with the book’s ending. I do get it, readers wanted more drive to the narrative and for the plot to bring some conclusions. But I don’t really agree with this criticism since I think this novel’s slow pace is what makes it so special. It takes you to an oppressive place and then makes you sit there in your discomfort. Not necessarily enjoyable, but definitely impactful. If you couldn’t already tell, I’m willing to fight against any critique of this book. Come at me.
I don’t think this book will necessarily be for everyone, but that’s literary fiction for you. Burnt Sugar is not a cosy book to read and unwind: it makes you think and question, and while it’s just over 200 pages, this is definitely not a book you should read in one sitting. That being said, Burnt Sugar is an incredibly powerful and experimental debut that deserves all the attention it’s gotten, even if the writing isn’t to everyone’s taste.