by Amy Baxter
'I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.' So begins Burnt Sugar, the Booker Prize nominated debut by Avni Doshi. The line is a punch in the gut, and, like Doshi’s entire novel, is a sickeningly beautiful illustration of one universal truth: all daughters turn into their mothers.
The premise of Burnt Sugar is, at surface level, satisfyingly average. A mother is starting to lose her memory, and a daughter seeks her medical treatment. Tara is beginning to lose her memory, roaming the house at night wanting to change the sheets for a child who has wet the bed, for a child long since grown up. It is clear to Antara that there is something seriously wrong with her mother, and yet it is a struggle to have a doctor to believe her. A simple story of a daughter seeking to help her mother. The familiar sad story of a daughter becoming a carer to her own mother.
Or perhaps not. It is clear from that first line that all is not right in their relationship. Doshi creates a staggeringly open window into Antara’s mind, her relationships not just with her mother, but with her husband and a fluctuating cast of characters from her past and present. Antara’s childhood with her mother, a single mother, was in her own memories, terrible and difficult. Tara married a sexual predator, Baba, after running away from an arranged marriage to Antara’s father. Antara grew up in Baba’s ashram, an Indian monastery, traditionally a place of spirituality and calm. Instead, Antara was abandoned by Tara, left to the care of its members. Later horrors include begging outside of the country club she later frequents as an adult member and is forced into a boarding school with sadistic tendencies.
And yet all these experiences are recounted only by Antara. Doshi pushes the story beyond the idea of the unreliable narrator to an overwhelming point. Antara’s struggle to have anyone believe her, or believe in her, is a painful struggle to unwind. Tara’s unwillingness to acknowledge the past drives Antara’s motivation to help her mother, more than any concern for her wellness. When a maid calls to tell Tara that her mother is roaming the house to change Antara’s wet bed, her reaction is callous. 'Even in her madness, my mother had managed to humiliate me.’ Doshi’s talent clearly goes beyond characterisation; I am sweating reading the pages. Antara’s anguish is in some places indistinguishable from the reader's own. Who is a mother who doesn’t remember her motherhood? Who is a daughter who doesn’t want to help her mother?
In our interview, Doshi noted that “a mother is the first god you encounter at birth, the source of attachment, nourishment - and also as an archetype, she activates something powerful in the psyche.” Antara’s obsession with her mother seems to be both entirely understandable, and paranoia in the extreme. And all the while, her descriptions of her mother’s suffering is somewhat beautiful. Burnt Sugar straddles the line between pain and beauty. It makes the stomach churn. And, like all great literature, it prompts the question of the reader: is this you? Are you your mother? Burnt Sugar is not a fun book, but a truly beautiful one.
Burnt Sugar (Hamish Hamilton) is now available to buy. Thank you to Penguin Hamish Hamilton for the review copy. Please think of your local bookshops when buying your copy. Read our interview with Avni Doshi here.