Burnt Sugar is Avni Doshi’s debut novel. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020. Set in Pune, India it is narrated by an artist named Antara who is struggling to come to terms with her past as she tries to work out how to care for her mother, who is living with early onset Dementia. This is a painfully honest look at caring for a close family member who isn’t particularly likeable.
“I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.”
Tara has not been a particularly caring mother. Abandoning her loveless marriage, she brought young Tara up in a strange and sometimes frightening ashram, then briefly chose homelessness for the two of them just to spite her affluent parents. Antara has been dragged along on this crazy adventure, for the most part, reluctantly. Now, a fully grown adult and about to become a mother herself, Antara is thinking about her past and some of the bad decisions her mother has made. Unfortunately, Tara doesn’t remember their shared past in the same way. Both women feel the other is culpable for the mess they’ve made of their relationship. But with Tara’s increasing confusion, it’s almost impossible to know who’s telling the truth.
“It seems to me now that this forgetting is convenient, that she doesn’t want to remember the things she has said and done. It feels unfair that she can put away the past from her mind while I’m brimming with it all the time.”
Antara resents the way her mother has brought her up and yet feels compelled to care for her as the Dementia renders her increasingly reliant on others. Tara doesn’t make the process of reconciliation easy. She constantly contradicts her daughter’s take on events and eventually sets fire to her studio, destroying all her artwork. Antara interprets this act as an attempt to erase her identity.
The novel wrestles with complex questions about matriarchal relationships: these women can’t seem to exist without the other, yet also appear to be hell bent on destroying each other. Their narratives are in conflict, yet they also seem to have shaped each other’s stories and their own particular ideas of truth.
“Sometimes I think I am becoming my mother.”
“Reality is something that is co-authored.”
Burnt Sugar also explores the role of women within Indian culture, interrogating class and gender assumptions and how both have evolved over the span of Tara’s lifetime yet still have a long way to go. The novel is rich in cultural description and paints a powerful picture of how Dementia is viewed within a non-Western culture. I particularly enjoyed the scenes describing everyday domestic life and the culture which exists around food. It’s refreshing to read a depiction of someone living with Dementia who isn’t an elderly, white, middle-class woman. I’d like to read more narratives like this. I thoroughly enjoyed Burnt Sugar and found the character of Tara both intriguing and extremely frustrating. I can understand Antara’s reluctance to become her mother’s fulltime carer. A trying person who develops Dementia is usually just as trying as before their diagnosis, oftentimes more so.
Burnt Sugar was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2020