Sally Flint

Book Review of Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar

Avni Doshi won a a Charles Pick writing Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in 2014.

Set in Pune in the west-central Maharashtra state in India, Burnt Sugar is primarily an exploration of a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship. Burnt Sugar is told from the viewpoint of Anantara. who we learn had an unconventional and neglected childhood.

In her youth Anantara’s mother, Tara, had left her husband to join an ashram. Whilst Tara took Anantara with her she largely ignored her as she embarked upon a wild and unsatisfactory love affair with the ashram leader, After later being rejected and leaving the ashram, there followed a stint as a beggar, and a further unconventional and unsatisfactory love affair with the waiter/writer Reza.

The reader joins the story when Tara is in middle-age but suffering from early onset dementia. Anantara is married to Dilip, (an immigrant reluctant to return home to America), The story is based on an exploration of Anantara’s emotions and own unravelling sense of self. The ties of Tara and Anantara are, it seems impossible to break, as the lines between love and hate merge.¬†

The unravelling sense of self seems to be reflected through the first person narrative. Conventionality is challenged and rejected. Dysfunctionality is presented as normality; The narrator uses an understated matter-of fact tone to reveal complex and shocking emotions. The reader is drawn into exploring the unravelling not only of Tara’s mind, but also that of Anantara.

An acerbic wit is used to ponder big life questions which encourage an engaged reader to confront truth in all its ugliness. Burnt Sugar is raw and challenging. It reveals the cruelty of life in a deceptively readable manner. 

Avni Doshi is on the longlist for the 2020 Booker Prize. She is against some tough competition though.

Book Discussion Questions on Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar

  • Why does Anantara allow Dilip and his mother to name the baby?
  • Discuss Anantara’s relationship with Dilip? Do you think they have a happy marriage?
  • How would you sum up Dilip’s character?¬†
  • Predict what you think will happen after the book concludes. Will the family relocate to America? What will happen to Tara?¬†
  • To what extent, if at all, do you think Anantara’s father should be held responsible for Tara running away?¬†
  • The opening pages of the book suggest that the story is going to be a conventional exploration of dementia. (I was expecting it to be a fictionalised account exploring the issues of caring for¬†a family member with dementia such as¬†Where Memories Go). It does explore dementia and shows how the illness actually intensifies aspects of the relationship between mother and daughter. Find examples to support this statement.
  • Discuss the reliability of Anantara’s narrative. Do you think Anantara reveals everything that she is feeling and that has happened to her in the story, or do you think there are things that happened which she chooses not to share?¬†
  • Discuss the relationship between Purvi and Anantara. Did the sexual encounter between them surprise you? What other actions and thoughts of Anantara surprised you?¬†
  • There are several incidents of revenge in the story. Discuss what they are and how they are signficant.
  • How would you describe the relationship between Anantara and her mother-in-law?
  • In the story Tara’s former husband and own parents eventually rescue her from ‘beggar status’. What are their reasons for doing so?
  • Discuss the theme of betrayal in the novel.
  • What is the saddest part of the book?
  • What is your opinion of Anantara as an artist?
  • Who is the most important character in the novel and why?
  • Tara claims towards the end of the book that Anantara missed her father the most when she was in the ashram. In Anantara’s own memories she misses her mother the most. Is this important? If so, why or why not?

Bookclub Questions on Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar (if you haven't read the book!)

  • Anantara says “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery had never given me pleasure.” Discuss this quote in relation to your own mother/daughter relationships.
  • After staying awake all night Anantara decided to give up her own right to name her baby and instead allows her mother-in-law to name the baby. Would you allow your own mother-in-law this privilege?
  • After Anantara has had the baby a number of family members visit. This initially causes her to feel invisible and then leads into a sense of her having to escape the environment. Have you ever needed to escape a social family gathering? Would you like to share your experience?
  • Absent mothers are judged more harshly than absent fathers. Discuss

Personal Response to Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar

This is a great debut novel from Dubai based author Avni Doshi. After reading the first few pages I thought it was going to be a topical and timely exploration of caring for a parent with dementia. It had pleased me that such an important topic had been chosen for a Booker Prize longlisted text. How wrong I’d been in this oversimplification. Burnt Sugar is a story of love and hate, betrayal, forgiveness and revenge. It takes the emotions of a dysfunctional familial relationship and takes the exploration of mother/daughter relationships to extremities.

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