Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi review – electrifyingly truthful

When does self-determination become selfishness? This intelligent Booker-shortlisted debut examines the legacy of a toxic mother

In the 1970s the British paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott described a kind of parenting that need not be all-consuming and self-sacrificing, but which could instead be simply “good enough”. Rather than rushing to feed the child immediately, the “good enough” mother allows an infant to cry a little, teaching them about the reality of frustration and expectation. But what can you learn from a bad mother?

In Avni Doshi’s Booker-shortlisted novel, Tara chooses to pursue her own desires, even as they come at an appalling cost. A restless and discontented young woman in 1980s India, she becomes so enthralled by a guru at a local ashram that she neglects her baby and abandons her marriage. She is absent and unrepentant, thoughtless of her daughter Antara, who later dispassionately describes how she “would disappear every day, dripping with milk, leaving me unfed”.

Three decades on, when Tara develops dementia, the adult Antara takes her into her home. It’s Antara’s internal conflict that forms the novel’s central theme: how do you take care of a mother who once failed to take care of you? Antara examines the question with a self-inspection so unflinching that it makes you catch your breath. “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure,” she admits coolly.

Set in the city of Pune in west India, the novel alternates between scenes of the past in which the young Antara suffers distress and neglect, and the present day in which the adult Antara is prosperous, middle-class and recently married to Dilip. They live in a modern apartment, do lines of coke at parties and lunch at a private members’ club. The young Antara, by contrast, is powerless when Tara leaves the family home to take up permanent residence at the ashram. She takes Antara with her and Doshi painfully details the child’s unattended thirst and hunger, the damp mattress in the courtyard on which she sleeps and the nightly shrieking of the guru’s frenzied followers.

Avni Doshi ... exploring the suffocations of motherhood.
Avni Doshi ... exploring the suffocations of motherhood. Photograph: 2020 Booker Prize/Sharon Haridas/PA

Doshi only vaguely names the enigmatic guru “Baba”, but the shadowy activities she describes at the ashram resemble those of the followers of the controversial Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (documented in the Netflix series Wild Wild Country). In the most skilled parts of the novel, she describes the bizarre behaviour of the worshippers – the foolishly laughing, clapping, bare-breasted devotees writhing on floors, the western “dabblers” who wear jeans under their kurtas, the tearful women who clutch at Baba’s feet. Writing from Antara’s perspective, Doshi allows us to see the scene both through the lens of her childish incomprehension and as a strange mysticism.

The ashram scenes are, by far, the most intriguing part of the novel, but Doshi, disappointingly, doesn’t allow us to linger here, refusing perhaps to indulge any readerly appetite for exoticism or prurience. What interests her is how, in these squalid circumstances, Tara finds liberation, and how hard it is for Antara to distinguish between her mother’s pursuit of self-determination and acts of selfishness.

When Baba dies, Tara lashes out, slapping the seven-year-old Antara and calling her “a fat little bitch”. Tara is monstrous, but the strength of Doshi’s book is that it resists showing only monstrosity. Her spare and unsentimental writing allows us a glimpse of something more: the suffocation of motherhood and frustrations so powerful she “would bang her body against the wall and scream silently to herself”.

When Antara later accuses her of only thinking of herself, Tara’s “expression moves towards injury but turns back”. She replies: “There’s nothing wrong with thinking about oneself.” Tara resists the abnegations of marriage and refuses the demands of motherhood. She refuses to apologise, too. This leaves Antara at an impasse. “Where do we go from here?” she wonders. But it is an impasse at which she will also find herself. Struggling with her own newborn, she admits, “I am tired of this baby.” She longs for it to to walk, eat, bathe, “have her own life, go off in the world”.

Dementia, though, is the novel’s real impasse and Doshi handles this thoughtfully. Although Tara’s illness recalibrates their relationship, it never permits Antara the restitution she needs. She notes how she has taken to referring to Tara in the past tense, because “I am grieving,” she observes, “but it’s too early to burn the body.” Dementia means that there is no reckoning, no settlement. Tara’s degenerated memory erases their shared history, both the small joys and the deep wounds, but Antara is still living it, processing it, unable to forgive.

Her mother acerbically tells her: “You should worry about your own madness instead of mine.” It’s true that the injustice of being failed by faulty parents is maddening. It’s irresolvable too, but there is, in the novel’s very fine closing scenes, a reluctant understanding. This is an intelligent debut, deserving of its Booker shortlisting. Burnt Sugar is sorrowful, sceptical and electrifyingly truthful about mothers and daughters.

• Burnt Sugar is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop,com. Deliver charges may apply.


Shahidha Bari

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Booker nominee Avni Doshi: 'Women feared my ambivalence towards motherhood'
Her venomous debut novel about a fraught mother/daughter relationship shocked India – and now it’s challenging Hilary Mantel

Elle Hunt

28, Jul, 2020 @1:09 PM

Article image
Actress by Anne Enright review – the spotlight of fame
The Booker winner’s seventh novel investigates a woman’s memories of her starry, damaged mother

Alexandra Harris

14, Feb, 2020 @7:30 AM

Article image
Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley review – a dazzling Dickensian tale
Can solidarity among the marginalised bring about social change? A novel set amid the brothels of Soho explores the answer

Lara Feigel

10, Mar, 2021 @7:30 AM

Article image
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James review – violent and cliched
The Man Booker winner calls his fantasy trilogy an ‘African Game of Thrones’. The gore is there, but where’s the subtlety?

Sukhdev Sandhu

22, Feb, 2019 @7:30 AM

Article image
Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze review – the double life of a London gangster
The tension between the author’s ultraviolent life on the streets and his university studies are at the heart of this autofictional Booker-longlisted debut

Matt Rowland Hill

29, Aug, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook review – a dazzling debut
A community of strangers attempt to live in a natural world made inhospitable by the climate crisis in this tale of survival and strife

Téa Obreht

04, Sep, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division by Elif Shafak review – a poignant look back at another age
What has happened to the belief that social media can create a new and better world?

Mary Beard

21, Aug, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
Dream Sequence by Adam Foulds review – precision of observation
This story of an ambitious actor and his obsessed fan is brilliantly written, but lacks contemporary resonance

Edward Docx

24, Jan, 2019 @8:57 AM

Article image
The Promise by Damon Galgut review – legacies of apartheid
The Booker-shortlisted novelist examines South Africa’s broken promises over the last three decades through the story of one white family

Jon Day

18, Jun, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Listen by Kathryn Mannix review – a wise guide to finding the right words
From adoption to sexuality, early pregnancy to death, a palliative care doctor explores the discussions we often try to avoid

Joanna Cannon

16, Sep, 2021 @6:30 AM