Inheritance by Balli Kaur Jaswal


I recently re-read Inheritance by Balli Kaur Jaswal for a summer reading challenge in which I am participating. I had read it, and loved it, last year; my neighbor had loaned me her copy.

This impressive debut novel traverses Singapore’s history from 1970 to 1990, from the aftershocks of Singapore’s independence from Malaysia to the rise of a prosperous, but authoritarian, city-state. In it, a Sikh family, wrestles with the unexplained loss of Dalveen, its matriarch; the dismissal of Narain, its elder son, from the army under suspicion of homosexuality; and the misdiagnosis of Amrit, its lone daughter, to devastating consequences.

Jaswal’s complex and tender portrayal of a bipolar personality and the stigma of mental illness are the highlights of the novel. And her descriptive language, whether about character or setting—of HDB flats, of Iowa—is evocative.

While Jaswal does not shy away of airing familiar criticisms of Singapore (of its social engineering and its “competitive” schooling), her political commentary—in an unsent letter written by Narain to the Director of the Social Development Unit, for example—often weighs down this otherwise fluid and graceful and moving novel.

Still, the second reading was as just as satisfying as the first. Inheritance is a dazzling novel; I can’t wait to read Jaswal’s next.