An amazing book with minimal sentimentality about trauma, mothers, daughters, and memory. Possibly one of my favorite books ever.
In a nutshell:
Burnt Sugar is a glimpse into the inner thoughts of Antara, an artist in Pune, India, reckoning with the trauma inflicted upon her by her mother. Meanwhile, her mother (Tara) is beginning to show signs of dementia. Antara is also struggling with a deep ambivalence towards the prospect of her own possible foray into motherhood.
TW: child abandonment, child abuse, Alzheimer’s, rape, postpartum depression, incest.
I flipped back and forth between eBook (thank you to Abrams books for the review copy) and a physical copy. I usually prefer physical copies, but it was nice to be able to mark passages on the Kindle app, especially because I could NOT stop highlighting sections of this book! I’m only including a small portion of them here…….there was so much about this book that I found remarkable. Being able to copy and paste was a lifesaver.
Avna Doshi is one hell of an author. It’s no surprise this was nominated for a Booker Prize. This is not a pleasant story to follow, but it is a whopper of a piece of writing. I looked into her background a little bit, convinced I would find a science background, but Doshi’s education seems to be in art history. This shouldn’t surprise me, as Antara is an artist. But there are many references to math and science in this story, and since those stuck such a resonant chord with me, they really stood out.
“I say that these things are not always conscious, that sometimes the way we act is determined by equations we fall into over and over again. However simple the problem, and however clean the solution, there is always a remainder, a fraction of something said and misconstrued.”
“In fact, worse than the thought of my parents’ abandonment were all the unanswered questions she posed, the ones that continue to float around. Any time I come close to answering one, a whole series of other doubts assert themselves. I wonder at the terror physicists must have felt when the laws of Newton failed under a microscope. They poked a little too far. Many of them must have wished they could un-see what they had witnessed and go back to a simpler time.”
There are also references to the Krebs cycle and Antara repeatedly goes down a nasty rabbit hole of medical research to present to doctors (in the form of pamphlets with drawings) regarding her mother’s semi-mystifying dementia. The docs do not take very kindly to this.
(I have been in those shoes. My initial reaction to any medical weirdness is to research it to death and find all kinds of far-fetched and only remotely possible medical explanations. Usually it’s just stress. I don’t normally get to the point of telling an actual medical professional of what I’m up to, but my therapist is very aware. And now you, strangers on the internet.)
Speaking of therapy, he and I also discuss memory a lot, so this book was a timely read for me in a very eerie way. I have expressed more than once that I have memories that I’m not able to classify as either a. A real memory of a thing or b. There because someone told me about the thing. Antara wonders this, too:
‘I want to say something more about the stars, but can’t recall what they look like, how many there are in total, and if they cluster in some recognizable formation. Are they static or moving, do they flicker or glow like bulbs, and I begin to doubt whether I have seen stars at all – or if I know of their existence only indirectly, through my mother or my father, or someone else who had taken it upon themselves to teach me what I don’t remember, because the only reality that remains from that time are feelings and ideas, and whether I authored them or they were placed within me is impossible to know.”
When speaking with a woman who helps caretakers of people with Alzheimer’s, Antara is told:
“Reality is something that is co-authored.”
I’ve seen this book described all over the place as a book about mothers and daughters. That’s partially true, but more specifically I think this book is a very accurate depiction of the cycle of trauma and its effects across generations. It isn’t always such a clear line between who causes trauma and who is traumatized. None of the characters are particularly likeable, and all of them have elements of both abusers and victims. Even the comparatively tame husband, Dilip, occasionally has questionable motives.
Doshi writes with almost zero sentimentality. And she goes DEEP. There are some pretty shocking things in this book. I was initially horrified by several passages, but honestly- who hasn’t had dark and disturbing thoughts? Maybe there are some of you out there that haven’t- lucky you, that you’ve never had to reckon with trauma, I guess?
There are several Goodreads reviews that really take issue with the “yuckier” portions. The very first one that pops up for me complains that there are too many disgusting details that aren’t even “relevant” to the story. (Sidenote- this person also whines about the science-y chatter- so this was clearly not the right book for them.) I think maybe the reviewer is technically correct, but how you define “story” matters. If “story” is simply the plot, then sure. You could remove all of these elements and still have a story. It would suck, but there would be a narrative. But if the “story” of the book is viewed as a really intricate portrait of the mental workings of a deeply traumatized woman? In that case, no deal. These details are critical to paint the full picture.
Antara eventually does find herself as a new mother with postpartum depression. She clips her baby’s fingernails, and keeps the clippings bundled in a handkerchief, and thinks to herself:
“This is madness. I feel it – I inch towards it daily. But it’s a necessary madness, without which the species might never propagate.”
I feel that description of motherhood down to my core. It also reminds me of my own mother, who kept a desiccated piece of my umbilical cord for a long time. I thought it was icky, and always told her so. I still think it’s gross, but now that I’ve got a kid of my own I can certainly understand it a little better. (Love you, Mom!)
The end of the book is a kind of fever dream. Antara descends into paranoia while a group of friends and family are in her apartment simultaneously fawning over her new baby and her mother (who Antara is no longer sure is forgetting or pretending to forget.)
Doshi possibly comments on the effects of sugar on memory and mental functioning. Antara (as a part of her obsessive medical research) experiments with sugar levels on her mother. Cutting it out or putting it back into her diet does seem to change things. This was the only part of the book that didn’t sit completely right with me, but it’s a tiny blip on what might be one of my favorite books. Ever. I don’t mind that this commentary is made, but it gets a little lost and feels unresolved in the grander scheme of Antara’s paranoia and postpartum depression.
I’ve definitely made it sound like this story is nothing but doom and gloom, which is not true. Doshi’s observations of life and the mundane are a treat, and there are some funny moments:
“I hate this apartment. I want to live in a spread from a magazine where every surface has the right amount of beautiful junk. Where I can stand in the centre of the room, unmoving, like a statue, and dust would never collect on me or my clutter.”
So. I’ll wrap up with a line wonderfully stated in this review:
“…come for the effortlessly stylish writing, stay for the boiling wrath.”