Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi Review

Thursday, 7 January 2021

 Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi 

“Sometimes I refer to Ma in the past tense even though she is still alive.”

I worked my way through this pretty quickly, here are some whistle-stop thoughts:

Burnt Sugar is Avni Doshi’s debut novel, and tells the story of Antara, an artist who’s stifled by her mother’s dementia, family life and childhood trauma. 

It begins with “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure”, which shows how Antara’s dealing the complexity of her situation – she’s watching her mother suffer, who has inflicted suffering on her, whilst feeling both pleasure and guilt at this sort of ‘redemption.’ But it isn’t even that straightforward; how do you blame someone who can’t remember? How do you find pleasure in watching your mother deteriorate, as if you can be separate from each other’s pain? It’s clear Antara and her mother’s lives are inextricably linked, in a way that the complexities and suffering of their fragile relationship makes it feel like their bodies are too.

I can see why people won’t get on with this book. Antara is at times ungrateful, spiteful and we can’t trust the way she sees the people around her. Her descriptions are heavy. The mother-daughter relationship stained by the past, is also something that’s been done before. There are characters who are only explored fleetingly and never brought to life. 

But what I like most about Burnt Sugar is that it isn’t afraid to be ugly or provoke discomfort. Antara often has dark intrusive thoughts and is disgusted by the mechanics of her own body. Her environment and city are suffocating, and she fixates on ugliness. The things that she loathes about her mother’s behaviour; the way she was ‘wild’, resentful as a mother, her inability to conform to expectations, are soon behaviours Antara mirrors herself. 

Burnt Sugar is a heavy read, and I’m still not sure how I feel about Antara. It got me thinking about the complexity of trauma, what it might be like to care for someone who never properly cared for you, and what it takes to be a mother.

Have you read the book? Let me know your thoughts! 📚

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