The 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.