The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri was read for the BookerMarks project as it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013.
Lahiri’s novel followed immediately after my closing the final pages of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. There is an obvious and dramatic difference in writing styles between the two, with Lahiri using a much stripped down use of language. I found it to be very refreshing.
I also have to say I was completely engaged from the beginning to the very end. I found that I was wanting to return to The Lowland every chance I was able to. Again, extremely refreshing, especially for one of the Man Booker choices this year. Many times, the impact of those sharp focused sentences were so arresting they were the cause for me to stop, re-read and think. However, one “star” was removed from my rating as the characters were just as stripped down as Lahiri’s writing. Many times I found that to be flat and one-dimensional. The characters are not as richly developed but for that one flaw it still does not take away the intensity with which I devoured this story. Once I closed the pages of The Lowland I found I couldn’t stop thinking about these people! I ran over their stories over and over again in attempts to understand everyone’s perspective. That, to me, is the hallmark of a good read.
Synopsis from Goodreads: Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and 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. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America. But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family’s home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind-including those seared in the heart of his brother’s wife.
As the synopsis reads above, Subhash and Udayan are very close-knit brothers sharing their childhood in Calcutta. One of the defining moments for these brothers is their trips over the high-fences of the golf and country club. This property is not welcomed to or opened to them. This is something that changes Udayan’s perspective of right and wrong, rich and poor, entitlement and poverty. More and more Udayan develops a radical passion for a Communist movement called the Naxalite. Subhash however, does not share this viewpoint and continues on his own path of leaving for America to continue his education.
These two separate and individual decisions divide the brothers – Subhash very critical of this party and its objectives – Udayan angered by this disapproval.
After Subhash has left for Rhode Island, Udayan meets and falls in love with an intellectual girl named Guari leaving Subhash to feel greatly replaced. From this point forward, the story frames itself around Udayan and his actions. This one man – a brother, a son, a husband, a father – shapes each of their lives, now steeped in loss and longing for him. We do not hear Udayan’s perspective for much of this novel however until the very end. We see him as they see him, how they long for him, the loss he represents to them individually. It makes for a very powerful and thought-provoking read and ending.
Tragic events lead Subhash back to Calcutta for the first time in many years. Bound by what he feels is his duty, and perhaps as a way to feel the closeness to Udayan he felt as a young boy, he marries Guari and allows for her escape and opportunity to raise her yet-to-be-born daughter Bela, in America.
Therefore, it is Guari that is one character that I struggled with. On one hand, I could understand her pain, her unwillingness in some way to let Udayan and his memory go. But her continued unwillingness to ever embrace all that was gifted to her really, I viewed as cowardly and undeserving. She forsook everything for a brief memory of Udayan. She lost out on so very mjuch, all for a memory of a man that already proclaimed his unworthiness. Guari harbored a lifetime of unhappiness for all that was offered to her.
“But in this case it had fixed nothing, helped no one. In this case there was to be no revolution. He knew this now.” So consumed with the political fight – “They were told there was an alternative. Of attending meetings and rallies, of continuing to educate himself. Reading the leaflets of Charu Majumdar, trusting Kanu Sanyal. Believing there was a solution at hand.” (Udayan)
She was unprepared for the landscape to be so altered. For there to be no trace of that evening, forty autumns ago. Scarcely two years of her life, begun as a wife, concluded as a widow, an expectant mother. An accomplice in a crime.”
She was the sole accuser, the sole guardian of her guilt. ” (Guari)
It was heartbreaking as well to see how long Subhash put his life and happiness on hold, forsaking everything in his life for what he felt duty-bound to do for his brother, Udayan. However, no one suffered greater than Bela, a complete innocent to everything in the past. Raised in a home where her two parents showed no love for one another, a mother that abandoned her for a memory, a distant and brief memory of a man.
It was all of this – this longing and resistance to letting go for so very long that had me dwelling on this story well after I closed the final page. I was consumed with sadness that Subhash and Guari would allow for this longing over a lost brother and husband to consume their lives to the point where they waited over 40 years to discover their individual happiness. And for Guari, it came far, far too late for her. I was deeply saddened by her choices and decisions. And although I said the characters were one-dimensional or perhaps “flat” in their development they certainly rented a great deal of space in my head long after finishing The Lowland. 4 stars for one of the best reads of the Man Booker Shortlist I’ve read to date.
NPR featured a review of The Lowland, which you can read here, and addresses what the reviewer considered to be the “clinical prose” Lahiri uses.
This review will be posted simultaneously on the Literary Hoarders.