Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Fire on the Mountain, Desai’s fifth novel, has much in common with her earlier short story “Grandmother,” in which the grandmother, like Nanda, is a product of her experiences and has become an isolated soul. Like the novel, “Grandmother” concerns the confrontation between an older woman and a child, except in the short story the child has not, like Raka, withdrawn from the world. The novel also is linked with Cry, the Peacock (1963), which uses stream-of-consciousness narrative and imagery to depict the diseased psyche of a woman who is slowly disintegrating and who, like Nanda, is very much a prisoner of her past. Maya, the protagonist, becomes alienated from her husband, just as Nanda has become alienated from her husband in Fire on the Mountain. The themes of alienation and lack of communication in married life also appear in Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975), a novel that stresses the impact of the past on the future.

Desai also tends to concentrate on the inner world of her characters and often uses setting to mirror or to effect a character’s development. Setting and character interact most prominently in Voices in the City (1965), which concerns a young man in Calcutta who is unable to “connect” with other people, while in Bye-Bye, Blackbird (1971) an Indian immigrant in England (who resembles the protagonist of Voices in the City) struggles with an alien culture. Desai’s themes and characters lend themselves to the short, poetic novel or the novella, and she also seems to prefer the three-part structure she uses in Fire on the Mountain and in two other novels. In a real sense, the structure appears dialectic, with thesis, antithesis, and synthesis corresponding, in the case of Fire on the Mountain, to Nanda’s tenuous withdrawal, Raka’s threat to her aloofness, and the concluding death and fire which act as a kind of purification, bringing self-awareness.