Thursday, 20 March 2014

Book 8 Review: The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

My 8th book this year is the novel ‘The Lowland’ by Jhumpa Lahiri. This novel is Lahiri almost at her best; full of cross cultural observations, complicated relationships, families who don’t always like each other and lots of beautiful descriptive language. The novel is ostensibly about two brothers from Calcutta and the divergent paths their lives take. But at its core, it is a novel about the complexities of families. The Lowland was Shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Price and was a National Book Award Finalist, and is certainly worth all of those honours. If you are after a light and happy novel, this is not the book for you. But if you want to be challenged, to look at the complexities of families in a different way and learn a little of Calcutta's past and the ill fated Naxalite movement, The Lowland will do all that and more.

The cover of The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

A little context to start; The Lowland is not a novel about India.
It is a novel about families. And about how screwed up people are. (Aren’t I erudite!).
The stereotype of 'Indian' books is that they are full of beautiful colour, descriptions of busy families, and descriptions of food so real, you head straight to your local Indian restaurant for some takeaway. This is not that book. The Lowland is a book of cold, strained relationships, of emotions buried, a lifetime worth things unsaid and of distance. This is a novel about universal issues.

Indeed one of the strongest themes that comes through in the novel is distance, both emotional and physical. From a very young age there is a great difference between the personalities of the measured and thoughtful protagonist, Subhash, and his brother, the impulsive and boundary pushing Udayan. This difference between them only increases as Udayan starts receding into the murky world of the Naxalite movement and Subhash moves to The United States to pursue his studies. Although the novel is about two brothers, the majority of the novel is spent with the brothers separated, and mostly follows the life of Subhash and his life in America.

The Good Bits:
The Lowland is interesting and quick to read. This is not normally something worth mentioning as an especially 'Good Bit' but I'll allow it on this occasion. The novel deals with the nature of relationships, of marriage, of duty, of truth and love, and is often as bleak as a Subhash's beloved Rhode Island beach in winter. Despite this, I never found it a slow or uninteresting read, and I powered through it in no time at all.

Lahiri's novels always include enlightening commentary on the experience of Indian migrants and observations on the changes between old and new, post-colonial India. The Lowland is no exception to this. The experiences of Subhash and his wife in America highlight some of the challenges faced by the members of the Indian diaspora to the West. 

The Not so Good Bits:
The Lowland was very truthful in its portrayal of characters. And just as in life and in families, there are characters you don't like very much. Gauri, (I won't explain who she is to avoid spoilers) and the boys' mother, are both complex characters burdened by their pasts. But for me, they were unlikeable enough not to absolutely love this novel.

Discussing the novel on Twitter with one of my fellow book lovers, she mentioned something about The Lowland:

Hochu hit the nail on the head with this one and perfectly encapsulated my feelings on The Lowland. It isn't a book that you will spend days thinking about the characters after you have finished, and perhaps this is why it didn't win the Man Booker Prize. It is emotionally taxing, and the resentments, anger and unresolvable issues that the characters face result in a novel without simple answers or happy conclusions. It is still a brilliant novel, but ultimately I prefer The Namesake and The Interpreter of The Maldives by Lahiri.

4 out of 5

The Next Book:
The next book is The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, by Wendy Jones.

Want more?

Yes, you beady eyed loyal readers, this is a new section!

 If you liked this novel, or want something similar to The Lowland try these novels: 

Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, And the Mountains Echoes Khaled Hosseini, The White Tiger Aravind Adiga

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