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BOOK REVIEW

Luminous family saga bridges eras, cultures

The Inheritance of Loss, By Kiran Desai, Atlantic Monthly Press, 336 pp., $24

If book reviews just cut to the chase, this one would simply read: This is a terrific novel! Read it!

Why? First of all, there's the novel's generosity. Kiran Desai's ''The Inheritance of Loss" spans continents, generations, cultures, religions, and races. Like Desai's acclaimed first novel, ''Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard," its primary setting is India, in this case the remote province of Kalimpong during the mid-1980s.

The first sentence establishes the landscape as central: ''All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapor Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the winds at its summit." Here in the foothills of the Himalayas, ''where India blurs into Bhutan and Sikkim," 16-year-old Sai lives with her grandfather, an irascible retired judge, his cook, and his dog. Their story begins with a bang, when a band of young Nepali would-be revolutionaries invades the judge's falling-down house in search of guns:

'' 'We have no guns here.'

'Get them.'

'You must be misinformed.'

'Never mind with all this nakhra. Get them.'

'I order you,' said the judge, 'to leave my property at once.'

'Bring the weapons.'

'I will call the police.'

This was a ridiculous threat as there was no telephone.

They laughed a movie laugh, and then, also as if in a movie, the boy with the rifle pointed his gun at Mutt. 'Go on, get them, or we will kill the dog first and you second, cook third, ladies last,' he said, smiling at Sai.

'I'll get them,' she said in terror and overturned the tea tray as she went . . . She felt intensely, fearfully female."

While the bandits (after a fair amount of theft and vandalism, but no human harm) depart and the police, properly bribed, investigate, the novel jumps to New York City. Here Biju, the cook's son, works in the city's restaurant kitchens. With Biju, we experience the world of illegal aliens, the ''shadow class . . . condemned to movement." ''Biju put a padding of newspapers down his shirt . . . and sometimes he took the scallion pancakes and inserted them below the paper, inspired by the memory of an uncle who used to go out to the fields in winter with his lunchtime parathas down his vest. But even this did not seem to help, and once, on his bicycle, he began to weep from the cold, and the weeping unpicked a deeper vein of grief."

As events unfold, the novel alternates between Kalimpong and New York. At the same time, it shuttles back and forth between Sai's youth and that of her Anglophile grandfather, Jemu. Through Jemu, a Third World Horatio Alger, we experience the post-colonial era in all the cruelty of its old, ingrained hatreds and prejudices. Through Sai we experience the precarious present. ''What was a country but the idea of it? . . . How often could you attack it before it crumbled? To undo something took practice; it was a dark art and they were perfecting it."

This double juxtaposition of place and time might, in other hands, distract or distance us from the story. Here, it feels natural and inevitable. The key is Desai's fierce specificity. In her skillful hands, the political is personal. Her characters are so alive, the places so vivid, that we are always inside their lives. The antagonisms and convulsions of the larger world -- the clash of races, classes, cultures, generations -- are filtered through the characters.

Transitions between continents and eras consist of the natural connections among the characters. Biju and his father think constantly of each other, and Biju writes moving, funny letters home. Sai pesters her father for stories of her grandfather's past. Meanwhile, she falls in love with her Nepali tutor, Gyan, who in turn falls under the spell of what becomes a Nepali uprising. As the story progresses, Desai pulls these threads tightly together. The denouement combines betrayal, retribution, and hope in a surprising yet wholly believable outcome.

''The Inheritance of Loss" offers all of the pleasures of traditional narrative in a form and a voice that are utterly fresh. Desai's use of the omniscient point of view has the naturalness of Tolstoy, yet (enhanced, sometimes too exuberantly, by typographic hijinks) it's as quick and quirky as rap music. Her rich and often wry descriptions -- of people, places, weather, seasons -- have the depth and resonance of Dickens laced with rueful postmodern ambivalence. Her insights into human nature, rare for so young a writer, juggle timeless wisdom and 21st-century self-doubt.

In the end, the landscape that has engendered great passion and destruction survives both. Characters, plot, theme -- all are subsumed into it. ''Sai looked out and saw two figures leaping at each other as the gate swung open. The five peaks of Kanchenjunga turned golden with the kind of luminous light that made you feel, if briefly, that truth was apparent. All you needed to do was to reach out and pluck it."

Ann Harleman (www.annharleman.com) is the author of a story collection, ''Happiness," and a novel, ''Bitter Lake." She teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

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