Book Check: The Lowland, By Jhumpa Lahiri
Title: The Lowland Tell Me About the Author: Jhumpa Lahiri is the beloved author of The Namesake, which was made into a 2006 film by Mira Nair. Her collection of short stories, 1999's The Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The win was notable on several fronts. Interpreter was a debut work, and it marked only the seventh time a story collection had won the prize (which is usually awarded to novel). Lahiri was also only 32 at the time the Pulitzers were announced, and she was also the first winner in the fiction category of Indian descent. She published The Namesake in 2003, followed by another story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, in 2008. Her latest novel, The Lowland, was a recent finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the United Kingdom's Man Booker Prize.
And this Novel is About What? Like The Namesake, The Lowland observes the generational shock and adaptation of immigration from India to the United States. However, Lahiri's point of focus is sharper here, and not concerned with the gradual process of assimilation, but how actions made in one country can shape the life that is built in another.
The central characters in The Lowland are cut from the same material as her other creations: educated Bengali academics who bear out their lives in formal, tidy university settings. Subhash is an environmental scientist, and Gauri is a philosophy graduate student. Their ordinary, uneventful Rhode Island life as husband and wife is not quite as pleasant as it should be, not quite as serene as their seaside landscape. For life began for them in Calcutta, and it is there that the false terms of their life began.
The lowland in the book's title refers to the suburb of Calcutta where Subhash grew up into young adulthood with his younger brother, Udayan, of 15 months. Their close proximity in age is significant, as the two grow into mirror images of themselves. But brothers, however close, are ruled by temperament as much as blood. In their India, the India of the '60s, there is unrest and upheaval.
The disparity between poor and privileged is stirring the sentiments of the university student population, and the brothers witness the birth of the Communist-fueled Naxalite movement. Subhash, the level-headed, responsible older brother, looks at the student protests with weary skepticism, but Udayan is stirred to action, moved by the dreary destinies of millions of his countrymen. Udayan joins the movement eager to change the world, but instead alters the life course of his family and future generations in ways he will never comprehend.
Lahiri has a gift for compressing entire lives into slender volumes of work. In less than 350 pages, we learn the desires and regrets, the fears and loves of Subhash, Udayan, Gauri, and Udayan's daughter, Bela, who lives her entire life in America, unaware of the political turmoil that has brought her family away from India. She chooses her moments wisely, conjuring up tender moments that not only illuminate her characters, but create an overarching narrative that feels grand despite the banality of its individual pieces.
Should I Read It? Absolutely, but maybe not at this time of carefree holiday bliss. Though written in common, unadorned language, The Lowland is not a breezy read. It requires a bit of meditation, just as the very act of observation requires a perceptive focus. Lahiri's characters are very real in their quiet drama and everyday suffering, and deserve as much consideration as flesh and blood beings. Their coping, their ability to create an existence out of merciless fate, is breathtaking.
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