Burnt Sugar – Avni Doshi #BookerPrize 2020

And even now, when I am without her, when I want to be without her, when I know her presence is the source of my unhappiness – that learned longing still rises, that craving for soft, white cotton that has frayed at the edge.’

This is an unsettling read, one which charts the intense relationship between Antara, an artist in Pune, India, and her mother, Tara. Late on in the novel, Antara tells us ‘Antara was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother. But in the process of separating us, we were pitted against each other.’ This confirms what we have already seen – the daughter of the wild and vivacious mother struggles to find her own identity, feels herself to be unheard and unseen. The relationship between the two is fraught, each having both a fierce dependence on and a deep-rooted suspicion of the other.

Whilst Antara often finds it difficult to be in the same room as her mother, she tells us early on that ‘I  can walk from my flat to Ma’s in about forty-five minutes if I take the shorter route and run across the main road while the light is still green‘. The reason for her urgency is primarily her mother’s increasing confusion and forgetfulness, but it’s obvious this is also about Antara’s need for a mother that she is still looking for. She starts writing notes for her mother to find, notes about the past designed to spark a memory for her mother. But memories are subjective, and these notes are as much about Antara’s past as they are a means to bring her mother back.

Many of the relationships in this story are unhappy, or at least unsatisfactory. Told from Antara’s perspective, this sheds light on her character in subtle ways. But her dissatisfaction with herself and with others can make for a frustrating read, and I found many of the characters difficult. What is strong is Doshi’s descriptions of the physicality of bodies – Antara often describes fluids and skin with the eye of the artist – her ongoing project involves drawing iterations of the same face day after day. There’s no doubt Doshi is a brilliant writer of female relationships, the mother-daughter tension, and the strange and intense feelings motherhood brings, but Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (bizarrely not longlisted for the Booker this year) does this with a firmer hand. Burnt Sugar is a very good read, but I don’t think it’s strong enough to see off Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light.

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