Margaret Busby, Chair of the 2020 judges, says: "The shortlist of six came together unexpectedly, voices and characters resonating with us all even when very different. We are delighted to help disseminate these chronicles of creative humanity to a global audience."
Margaret Busby, Chair of the 2020 judges, says: “Each of these books carries an impact that has earned it a place on the longlist, deserving of wide readership. Included are novels carried by the sweep of history with memorable characters brought to life and given visibility, novels that represent a moment of cultural change, or the pressures an individual faces in pre- and post-dystopian society... As judges we connected with these writers’ well-crafted prose, the mastery of detail, the arresting sentence, the credibility of the narrative arc, the ability to use to the full, the resources of storytelling. Unplanned, our final selection encompasses both seasoned favourites and debut talents ― a truly satisfying outcome.”
The triumph of Burnt Sugar is that, despite its scathing attack – the sheer bitterness and despoilment indicated by its apt UK title (the original Indian title was Girl in White Cotton) – it retains throughout a stylistic freshness. This is an exquisitely written novel at a formal level, highly observant and patterned with fresh details, where even sashimi at a Japanese restaurant “lies on the plate like a submissive tongue”. So come for the effortlessly stylish writing, stay for the boiling wrath.
Doshi only vaguely names the enigmatic guru “Baba”, but the shadowy activities she describes at the ashram resemble those of the followers of the controversial Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (documented in the Netflix series Wild Wild Country). In the most skilled parts of the novel, she describes the bizarre behaviour of the worshippers – the foolishly laughing, clapping, bare-breasted devotees writhing on floors, the western “dabblers” who wear jeans under their kurtas, the tearful women who clutch at Baba’s feet. Writing from Antara’s perspective, Doshi allows us to see the scene both through the lens of her childish incomprehension and as a strange mysticism.
Once the emotional fisticuffs get going, the tone of the book alters from bitter wit (“Today I fought with Ma.” “What about?” “Our usual fight”) to something more brittle and despairing. “Part of me was sealed off,” Antara says about her time at the convent. “Little went in and little came out.” By the end, Antara has become a mother herself, although it seems less likely to provide closure than to prove that Larkin’s line “man hands on misery to man” applies to women too. Burnt Sugar is a good debut, but by declaring it one of the year’s very best novels, the Booker judges might have given it as much a burden as an accolade.
In the midst of all this, Tara feels like a cipher, stuck between the mother Antara longs for and the woman she’s grown to hate. “There was a breakdown somewhere about what we were to one another, as though one of us were not holding up her part of the bargain, her side of the bridge. Maybe the problem is that we are standing on the same side, looking out into the emptiness.” There’s a lot more to praise in Burnt Sugar: a concern with corporeality and illness, smells and shrieks erupting through the feverish prose. It’s a corrosive, compulsive debut.
Doshi’s visceral debut is a no-holds-barred excavation of how hate can both poison and sustain. It bristles with sharp, chilly aphorisms, but although this first-time author’s gifts are evident, it’s not exactly fun to read.