Earlier this year, in The Monthly, I read Peter Pierce’s excellent review of Inheritance and I promptly bought myself a copy. Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Inheritance is published by Sleepers, an independent publisher based in Melbourne, who favor writers who are unique. After writing part of my Creative Writing Masters exegesis on The Danger Game by Kalinda Ashton (Sleepers, 2009) I always look out for their books.
Now and then you read a novel that forcefully captures your imagination, making you think about the characters in between reading sessions. For me, Inheritance was one of those books. I read it slowly, every night in bed, for a week. It was a novel I did not want to rush reading, because I didn’t want it to end.
What intrigued me in particular is how the family members in the novel are connected by the challenges they face. This is the story of a troubled Sikh family from the Punjabi region of Pakistan who moved to Singapore to work at the British Naval Base. The father, Harbeer, mourns and fantasises about his lost wife. His elder son Narain enrolled in the army but was banished to the US after the army chiefs suspected he was gay. Gurdev is the son who is trying to do everything right but cannot satisfy anyone, least of all himself. My favourite character is the haunted, beautiful, haunting Amrit. She lives in a way that is frightening, exciting and sorrowful.
Promiscuity is a topic that holds fascination for many writers. Promiscuity coupled with madness is a doubly intriguing topic. In this novel, shame is the price characters pay for sex that is not socially sanctioned, something that says more about the society than it does the individuals, in some ways. Given the geographical and cultural framework for this story, themes of sexuality are more powerful than if they were given the same treatment in a novel set in contemporary Australia. However, Singapore and Australia are societies that have historically associated feminine sexuality with subordination to men. Amrit is rebellious, and she rebels against these social expectations, but as the novel explores the reasons behind her behaviour, the outcome of this – the personal cost to Amrit – has disastrous and tragic potential. Narain confronts his own challenges. These anxieties about sexuality, in particular what a society perceives as excessive sexuality, are not portrayed in a way that is heavy handed or overly dramatic. Instead, Jaswal argues for more compassion and intelligence in how society treats its marginalised citizens. One question I found myself wondering about after I’d finished reading is, are Narain’s sex scenes handled in the same way as Amrit’s? Or are Amrit’s more explicit? And what does this mean? In any case, I haven’t reached a conclusion on this question, and I want to put this review on my website.
Jaswal’s writing is compelling, delicate, and loaded. Some sections read like poetry:
The sweet, smoky smell of roasted chestnuts clung to her hair as she walked through darkened neighbourhoods. The only lights visible were in the small, square windows. She could not stop walking, even when she was hungry; she had to keep going. She breathed in the island air, fresh and thick with dampness. Had it rained moments ago? Was it raining now? She didn’t know.(p67)
The novel chronicles twenty years of Singaporean history, an era that is fascinating and surprising. Inheritance has been called a nation’s coming of age novel: Singapore is a nation trying to create its own identity. For example, the government runs what is effectively a dating agency called the Social Development Unit, which aims to promote love and create new, clever families from people who meet certain educational and personal criteria. For me, this novel was an insight into a particular life I did not know a lot about, and I was mesmerised.
A fabulous story and I look forward to reading it again soon. The editors at Sleepers are picky – they only publish a few carefully chosen novels each year. I’m really excited about their next book to be published, What Was Left by my friend Eleanor Limprecht.