Boyd Tonkin: An endearing view of globalisation

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The Independent Online

'The Inheritance of Loss' is a book about tradition and modernity, the past and the future - and about the surprising ways both amusing and sorrowful, in which they all connect. As with the novel, so with the decision of the Man Booker jury. From one angle, Kiran Desai's award looks like a bold, even a revolutionary choice. Split in its setting between the high Himalayas and the basement kitchens of Manhattan, the novel's global sweep and reach captivated the judges to make Desai the youngest ever female winner of this prize. Still only 35, she had until this book only published a charming but much more limited debut. Few Booker winners can ever have plunged so energetically into the movement and muddle of Manhattan life, as the cook's son, Biju, hops between cheap eateries in search of that ever-illusive Green Card. We have sometimes been told that this prize's sponsor hankers after a competition that would allow an American victor. Well, in the raucous, darkly comic desperation of Desai's New York "illegals", they have got halfway there.

Her isolated highland India, too, no longer casts one eye on Delhi and the other on London. Even though most of the plot unfolds in the late 1980s, Desai shrewdly captures the birth-pangs of a truly globalised nation. In the crumbling, damp house where the judge and his grand-daughter uneasily co-exist, nostalgia is buffeted by the winds of change.

And yet: from another point of view, this novel represents an absolutely classic Booker selection. Remember that the prize leapt into the international limelight in 1981, with the triumph of 'Midnight's Children' by the almost unknown Salman Rushdie. Kiran Desai would surely accept that 'The Inheritance of Loss', for all its individual sparkle and originality, is nothing if not a post-Rushdie novel.

Since then, the award has often favoured books that embody in their form and style the creative collision of English-language fiction with an explosive, post-colonial world. From Peter Carey to Ben Okri to Arundhati Roy, this has become an honour for stories of cultural transitions and migrations on a globalising planet. In this light, Desai's victory seemed like a mainstream choice. This is an affecting and endearing novel, full of laughter and of tears: Professor Hermione Lee praised it for its unique "depth of humanity". It comes right from the heartlands of the Booker's artistic terrain. So perhaps it's apt that Desai has succeeded at her first attempt on a prize that has short-listed her mother Anita's work three times. This is a strong and justifiable choice, and one that a wide variety of readers should enjoy.