Man Booker Shortlist – Book 05 – The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri
Our good friend WoodsieGirl has read all the books on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize for the last few years. This is not because she is an avid reader, with varied interests and is constantly on the lookout for new great fiction. She does this purely to mock my inability to organize my book list. Honestly. It’s evil.
Anyhoo, once again, she has kindly written up reviews of each book for us.
THE BLURB (Amazon)
From Subhash’s earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. In the suburban streets of Calcutta where they wandered before dusk and in the hyacinth-strewn ponds where they played for hours on end, Udayan was always in his older brother’s sight.So close in age, they were inseparable in childhood and yet, as the years pass – as U.S tanks roll into Vietnam and riots sweep across India – their brotherly bond can do nothing to forestall the tragedy that will upend their lives. Udayan – charismatic and impulsive – finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty. He will give everything, risk all, for what he believes, and in doing so will transform the futures of those dearest to him: his newly married, pregnant wife, his brother and their parents. For all of them, the repercussions of his actions will reverberate across continents and seep through the generations that follow.Epic in its canvas and intimate in its portrayal of lives undone and forged anew, The Lowland is a deeply felt novel of family ties that entangle and fray in ways unforeseen and unrevealed, of ties that ineluctably define who we are. With all the hallmarks of Jhumpa Lahiri’s achingly poignant, exquisitely empathetic story-telling, this is her most devastating work of fiction to date.
The Lowland is Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel and fourth book (the other two were collections of short stories – one of which, The Interpreter of Maladies, I read a year or so ago and can highly recommend). It spans more than 50 years in the life of several generations of a family. I apologise in advance for spoilers in this review – I’m not sure I could do an accurate review of this book while keeping it spoiler-free!
The book opens in Calcutta in the 1950s, and we are introduced to two young brothers: Subhash, the older and more cautious of the two, and Udayan, his impulsive but beloved younger brother. As they grow older, both become involved in the radical communist movement (following the Naxalite uprising which, I must admit, I’d never heard of previously – this book really underlined how ignorant I am of Indian history). While Udayan gets drawn deeper into the movement, Subhash, disturbed by the violence he perceives within the movement, decides instead to leave for America, to study for a PhD. He does not return to Calcutta until several years later, when Udayan has been executed by the police, leaving behind his new wife Gauri, a brilliant student of philosophy, who is in the early stages of pregnancy.
Wanting to protect Gauri and Udayan’s unborn child, Subhash marries Gauri and takes her back to Rhode Island with him. Together they keep up the pretence that the child, Bela, is Subhash’s daughter, telling no one in America (including Bela) about Udayan. The book then follows the course of the family’s life in America: the disintegration of Subhash and Gauri’s loveless marriage; Bela’s somewhat neglected childhood, with her two academically-brilliant but frequently absent parents; and Gauri’s inability to be a mother to her daughter, culminating in her running away to Southern California to take a university lecturing post, abandoning her family, when 12-year-old Bela is on a visit to Calcutta with Subhash. The final part of the book charts Subhash and Bela’s lives following this abandonment: Subhash attempting to comfort the daughter he adores, while still concealing from her that he is not her biological father; and Bela’s rootless, nomadic adult life spent in communes and working on farms.
It’s a little difficult to know where to start in reviewing this book. It’s so vast and all-encompassing, but at the same time very intimate. I was reminded while reading of the phrase “the personal is political” – this is very much true of The Lowland. Lahiri manages simultaneously to evoke the political upheaval of post-independence India, the Indian immigrant experience of America, and the lives of feminist intellectuals in the 1970s to present; alongside an intimate portrayal of family lives, mother-daughter relationships, and the grief of Udayan’s sudden death that ripples throughout the entire book. The plot is not complex exactly, but is certainly multi-layered. Lahiri frequently switches viewpoints, to give us everyone’s side of the story. The brief synopsis I’ve given above is really only the bare bones of the plot – there are many other diversions and digressions which add to the whole picture. I was particularly moved by the passages concerning Subhash and Udayan’s mother, who never recovered from her son’s violent death. We see her visiting the very spot where he was murdered, every day for decades – only stopping when her infirmity and dementia prevent her from leaving the house.
Character-wise, some are better drawn than others. I never felt like I really got to know Bela: although we are given glimpses of her adult life, as a child we don’t really see much of what she is thinking and experiencing, only seeing her through the eyes of her parents. I thought this made it difficult to sympathise with her as a character – although this could be because most other characters were so vividly drawn by comparison.
Gauri was one of the most interesting characters for me. She’s not a sympathetic character – it’s hard to like someone who abandons their child – but then it made me think that we probably judge women more harshly for this than we judge men who do the same thing. I did sympathise with her in a lot of ways: she’s an academically brilliant woman born into a time and place where that is not an easy thing to be, and unprepared for the social expectations put on her. It’s not until quite late on in the book that we find out more about the days leading up to Udayan’s death, and what precisely his (and her) involvement in the Communist movement was. When it comes, it’s muted but quietly shocking: we see that Gauri has lived with a secret every bit as crushing as Subhash’s concealment of Bela’s true paternity has been. When Gauri abandons her family, she completely disappears from the text until very close to the end, when we get a few chapters outlining what has happened to her since and her feelings of guilt and shame at abandoning her daughter. I did think it was appropriate that she doesn’t get a neat, happy reunion scene with Bela: what actually occurs is tough to read, but feels more realistic.
In case it’s not clear, I loved this book. Lahiri’s writing is beautiful and confident, and the story she tells is astonishing in its scope. I think this is a very strong contender for the Booker, and it’s probably my favourite from the shortlist so far.