The Sirens of Mars Sarah Stewart Johnson

Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin

Bad mothers have made good stories forever. From the wicked stepmothers of fairytales and the negligent or pushy mums of Roald Dahl’s creations, to those whose parenting have scarred the pages of autofiction such as Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and Push. An intriguing literary side note is how many authors grew up under strange mothering – among them Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson.

And yet tales of motherhood still seem somehow scant across the shelves. For something so remarkable, an everyday occurrence of such miraculous proportions, an event so deeply, inherently transformative, it feels like there should be more stories.

Avni Doshi has said that she became “obsessed” with existent writing about motherhood: that of Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk, and Deborah Levy. But Burnt Sugar easily sits alongside their books. The Indian author’s debut novel is described as a “love story and a story about betrayal. But not between lovers – between mother and daughter”. Baby girls are born carrying eggs, Russian Doll-like. And Burnt Sugar intrinsically makes motherhood a mutual thing: not just one woman creating another, but two – mother, and daughter – fighting against and for the roles they expected to have.  

“Maybe our mothers always create a lack in us, and our children continue to fulfil the prophecy,” wonders Doshi’s narrator, Antara, a woman in her thirties who has recently had a baby girl as her mother slides into the grips of dementia while the family grandmother, Nani, offers a third perspective on their relationship. The notions of inheritance, loss, and legacy score through Burnt Sugar, as Ma – or Tara – becomes as demanding on Antara as a child might.

What Doshi does artfully is to separate these women from their motherhoods, and place them within a patriachal system that they sometimes aren't even aware of. While it is women who dominate Doshi's novel, they remain within a man's world, a further strain on that which tests them.

Tara is a rebel, careless in many senses of the word. She lives on the streets to spite her middle-class parents, she runs away to a cult, abandoning her toddler for the attentions of its leader. Instead, Antara learns what mothering can be from another, Kali Mata, a Pennsylvanian woman attuned to the whims of Baba, the cult-leader, and the children left behind by them. “Kali Mata was no longer the giant’s consort but she thought of herself as the mother of his children, as the nurturer for his many followers,” we learn. 

Yet, for all of Kali Mata’s kindness, Antara and Ma remain entwined, more in toxicity than love, one life mirroring and reflecting the other in the heat and humidity of Pune, the sweltering Indian city where Burnt Sugar is set. As their relationship progresses, it also – like Tara’s condition – becomes more complex, allowing Doshi to ask broader, darker questions about motherhood, womanhood and madness.

There is little joy to be found from what Burnt Sugar suggests: that love isn’t always innate or kind, that biology can’t be certain. But instead Doshi offers truths that sear and linger as fiercely as the images she conjures: a stark portrait of what can happen when one life begets another.  

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