The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I really enjoyed this Booker short-listed novel, but I have not found it easy to write about. Still, here is the review written before the Booker prize-winner was announced.

The lowland is a few acres of ground set behind two ponds in a neighbourhood of Calcutta, India, around which the lives of four generations revolve, even when they move abroad. It starts as the playground for two brothers, Udayan and Subhash, beginning their lives in a post-Independent India. Facing a country still divided by privilege, they make different choices that separate but entwine their lives in ways they could not have imagined (look away if you haven’t read the novel): Udayan becomes a Naxalite revolutionary and is shot by the police; Subhash emigrates to America and chooses to take responsibility for the wife and child his brother leaves behind. The historical facts around which the characters stories unfold are revealed as part of their lives, not as mini history lessons, but I come away knowing a great deal more about that period of Indian history as well as caring for the characters very deeply.

However, and this is partly the fault of the kindle, where a percentage isn’t the same as holding a real book with the weight of unread words felt in your hand, I was often surprised that the novel went on. I kept thinking it must be ready to end yet it kept unfolding into its eight parts and extending further into the voices of new generations. Strangely, it was the female voices of Gauri, the brothers’ wife, Bela, their daughter, and their mother, that I responded least well to. They seemed like diversions, but it’s true that they carried a lot of the narrative and without them the novel would have needed an alternative – perhaps more of Udayan’s voice, a voice that could have filled in many of the gaps left by Gauri and Bela? Perhaps I’m merely responding to a sense that the female characters mentioned here are more reactive that active – even Gauri who forges an independent and successful academic career for herself in America, albeit at great cost? Or, what I’m really saying is that this is fundamentally a story of two brothers and I wish the novel had focused on that a little more. I think I would also have liked it to focus more on a particular period of their lives. I’m not sure I needed to know about Gauri and Subhash’s old age, but then perhaps I’m missing the point.

Despite wanting a more condensed version of the brother’s lives  – and yes, this might have been more impactful – the need to encompass a body of people, to follow a family feels very Indian (think Vikram Seth and A Suitable Boy). The weaving of individual narratives into a family whole is a way in which individual life is valued but shown to be such a small and often insignificant part of the wider story; Udayan’s life is worthless to the authorities, to the revolution even, but essential to himself and his family. It is perhaps a slightly more depressing take on the family narrative, but it is a take nonetheless, perhaps a brave one that harks back to my first post about the hunger artist.

As I say, I enjoyed the novel, but I leave it weary and sad, not ready to embrace life’s mistakes but to prepare for defeat. Would Jhumpa Lahiri have wanted that? I doubt it. The possibility of opting out, of suicide, is again a part of this Booker short-listed novel and I wonder what that says about the panels’ tastes…

I would recommend this book, but I would not give it a prize.

My review of We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo will follow in a few days.