The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

lowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Knopf, September 2014
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I’m a big fan of Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories, and her first novel, The Namesake, is one I’ve given to lots of friends and relatives , so I was very excited to read her latest novel, her first book published in five years. It’s a bit tricky to review without ruining a major part of the plot, but I’ll try to stick to the categories listed on the copyright page: (1) brothers; (2) triangle (interpersonal relations); and (3) Naxalite movement.

The Lowland is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who were born at the end of World War II less than two years apart in Calcutta. Subhash is the older brother who leaves India to study chemical oceanography in the United States while Udayan is the younger brother who becomes radicalized and joins the Naxalite movement while his brother is abroad. The book combines the political story with the personal, and the personal seems to take over for the majority of the book before we understand all of Udayan’s story as we reach the end. The jumps in time are not confusing as we backtrack to Udayan and his wife’s story in India, and I credit Lahiri’s excellent writing. She is so good at providing the political background, she is so good at describing the scenes in Rhode Island where Subhash lives and works, and she is so good at getting readers to care about her characters inner lives, particularly their loneliness.

There were times when I was reading this book that I felt either that the writing was slow or that I had read this story before: lonely Indian immigrants to Rhode Island in the late sixties populate her stories and her previous novel, but this story felt distinct as it progressed, and I think it was because of the political element of the Naxalite movement, which I didn’t know much about before I read this novel. The book is not heavy on history like Midnight’s Children, which made me dig into lots of research about India’s history after 1947, but I felt like I got a good introduction to the Naxalite group, which was heavily influenced by Mao.

The only category I’ve avoided discussing is the triangle, and it revolves around Udayan’s wife Gauri, another politically motivated woman who becomes an academic in the course of the novel. There is much more to the story, but I don’t want to ruin the pleasures of the story and the writing. It’s not a fast-paced thriller or plot-heavy like the crime fiction I usually read, but it’s enveloping nonetheless. Even if you’ve read lots of Lahiri, there’s much to enjoy here, and, the ending was quite affecting.

The Lowland is one of my favorite books of the year.

Other reviews appear in S. Krishna’s Books and Book Page (Harvey Freedenberg). I picked these two reviews because most of them are quite spoiler-laden.

14 thoughts on “The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

  1. Rebecca – I must read her work! I’ve been wanting to since the release of The Namesake and simply haven’t. Thanks for the reminder. Oh, and excellent review, too!

  2. I am so low down on the library list for this that it’s going to be Christmas at least before I get to read it. I’m glad, though, to see another positive review for it as the last one I read was very scathing. Lahiri has been one of my favourite writers since ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ came out and as I am no great fan of the short story that is saying a great deal.

    • I look forward to your review whenever you get to it, Alex, I’ve been a fan of hers since her first book too, and it holds a special place in my heart because it was the first book we discussed in my favorite book club. I think I like her short stories because they don’t have oblique endings (or non-endings).

  3. Like you I adored The Namesake so this is a firm addition to my wishlist! One of my colleagues read this as part of his Man Booker Long list reading and heartily recommended it as well. Good review Rebecca as always…

    • She’s one of my favorite non-crime writers, and it’s easy to try out her work since she’s written so many short stories as well. Every once in awhile I break out of my crime novel box, thank goodness.

  4. I have read Jhumpa Lahiri’s books, and like her writing also. I used to read more non-mystery fiction, but since I got hooked on crime fiction, I haven’t broken out of the box often. But I do make exceptions, Barbara Kingsolver being one author I never miss. Lahiri is another.
    I will read this book, but am a little wary of being sad as I do know one of the plot lines from reading other reviews. And, I don’t want to run into cynicism either, as there are a lot of inequities to want to change in this world, and certainly in India where hundreds of millions of people are impoverished, unemployed, hungry, living without hope.

    • I try to read something other than crime fiction occasionally, but it’s difficult for me to do. If I actually make it to book club I can read something I wouldn’t normally pick up, which is great, but actually making it to a meeting is the tough part for me.

      The book didn’t feel overly sad or cynical to me, but it’s definitely not light. i hope you get to it when the mood is right, Kathy.

      PS I like Kingsolver too, but I haven’t loved her books since Poisonwood Bible as much as I liked that one. What did you think of her new one– Flight Behavior, right?

  5. I liked Flight Behavior. It deals with climate change and global warming but within a story, with Monarch butterflies flying to Appalachia, instead of Mexico. There is a great woman protagonist, Dellarobia, who is expanding her knowledge about the world because of learning about it from a scientist who comes to study the butterflies, and she’s growing as a person.
    There is a lot to deal with in the book, but Kingsolver keeps it moving along, with science and human relations seamlessly meshed. And it’s about a woman breaking out of her cocoon, too.
    However, Poisonwood Bible is still my favorite of her books, hands down. True of a friend, too, who likes Kingsolver’s writing. The author took 10 years to write that, and rewrote paragraphs over and over again. Also, her political points are made in such a way as to fold into the story, to perhaps educate some and satisfy others.
    Someday I mean to reread it. I just loaned it to a woman who works at a nearby cafe. I hope she likes it, too.

    • It’s good to hear your thoughts about Flight Behavior, which I haven’t read yet because I just read Prodigal Summer this past summer. I like to jump around from author to author. I’ll look for it in the coming months.

      I didn’t realize that Kingsolver took so long to write Poisonwood Bible, but it does feel very polished compared to some of her other books. By the way, I saw her at a reading ages ago (I was in high school) at her alma mater, which is just half an hour from where I grew up in IN. Though I’m not in love with her early stuff anymore, I do remember that hearing her selections was better than reading them.

  6. fYI: There is a good review of this book in the Sept. 29 NYT Book Review, by Siddhartha Deb. It deals with some of my questions, but you’d have to read it and see what you think.

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