Glancing at the shortlist for the Orange prize today, a dull, slightly sickened sensation stole through me—a Monday-morning hangover of a feeling, tinged with the quiet despair of clasping an alarm-clock showing a time about two hours later than I’m supposed to be in work. I was having a flashback. I was remembering reading The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai.
Maybe I was just in the wrong mood. Maybe, recalling past Booker-winning delights like Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, I was cursed by over-high expectations. But I don’t think so. I strongly suspect that, for all its descriptive beauties and finely nuanced observations of character, there are few books that under any circumstances could have entertained me less than The Inheritance of Loss. I just didn’t believe a word of it. Every lovingly shaded collage of strained emotion seemed to have been put together from a kit marked “Sensitive but contemporary. This way up. Will win prizes.”
But will it win the Orange, as it did the Booker in 2006 and the National Book Critics Circle award in 2007? Quite possibly. Sensitive is good. Sensitive and contemporary is great. And critics love authors whose prose has strenuously mastered the difficult and the exotic. I suppose I don’t mind that kind of thing, in moderation, but there’s only so much of it my battered empathies can take. My choice for the Orange, anyway, would be Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—a novel that, unpretentiously and humanely, bears witness to events still largely unrepresented on the postcolonial lit syllabuses.