Trigger warning for child abuse.
Throughout Avni Doshi’s unsettling novel, Burnt Sugar, the protagonist is told by others that memories and realities are shared. We create memories together. Because no one’s memory is perfect, there is no one version of what happened. Unlike many of us, however, Antara’s account of her life is complicated by mental illness, dementia, and a large dollop of rewriting the past to tell whatever story the teller needs to convey. No one can be trusted in this novel—making it a perfect read for those of us who love diving into the motives of unreliable narrators.
We don’t learn Antara’s name until well into Burnt Sugar. We learn her mother’s name first: Tara. This little clue serves as notice that Antara is rarely the protagonist of her own life. Instead, Antara follows in her mother’s wake from a home she was too young to remember, to years at an ashram where she was cared for by an older devotee of the guru, to her grandmother’s house (with a brief stint in an abusive convent school), back into her mother’s neglectful care before she could strike out on her own. When we meet Antara—before all of this backstory is revealed—she appears to be a woman who has managed to marry and make a life for herself. This life is an illusion. Antara has never left her mother’s orbit. In fact, we meet Antara at a moment when she is being pulled back into her mother’s life because Tara is showing signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s.
I’ve always found it a bit strange that we only seem to have coming-of-age stories for characters moving from childhood into early adulthood. We don’t have a word for stories that capture the transition when adult children have to start taking care of their parents, although I’ve started to see more of these books being published. Coming-of-age stories give readers a blueprint to navigate increased responsibility and freedom. There are no such blueprints for characters and readers who have to look after the people who raised them, watching as those parents lose their ability to live independently. All that said, Burnt Sugar is not a blueprint. While Antara relentlessly quizzes her mother’s doctor for remedies and diets and answers and even offers to have Tara move in, her own struggle to accurately remember the past and deal with her emotional trauma combine to pull Antara apart as much as Tara’s mental health is doing the same to the older woman.
Burnt Sugar moves back and forth, from Antara’s present to her past. A lot is unspoken in this novel, but the way that Antara tells her stories made me think that there is a lot of inexpressible anger simmering underneath Antara’s efforts to appear normal. A psychologist would probably have better words to describe (or diagnose) Antara’s inability to face what Tara did to her as a child, to explain why Antara has such a hard time bonding with her own daughter after Anikka is born, or why Antara feels so cut off from others. But, as the old psychology joke goes: if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother. Tara has a lot to answer for in Burnt Sugar.
I found Burnt Sugar to be a very disturbing read. It turns a lot of expectations about mother-daughter relationships inside out, showing how they can become warped when a mother is unable or unwilling to care for her child. We see, in vivid detail, what can happen to a child who is left (mostly to strangers) to be raised and how damaging it can be for a child to know that they are only looked after by others because of obligation instead of love. Very few relationships in this book fulfill the characters in them. Because of this near-complete breakdown of family care, Burnt Sugar left me with a lot of questions about how families should be, how they ought to support members with mental health issues, and when it’s time (or if it’s even possible) to cut all ties and run for the hills.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.
Note for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who are facing the decisions that come with having to take care of their elderly parents. Also recommend to readers who have complicated relationships with their mothers.