Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 339 pages. ISBN 9780307265746.

Jhumpa Lahiri's earlier books include The Namesake (which was made into a movie), and two collections of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, and Unaccustomed Earth. Having read and very much enjoyed both The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies, I was looking forward to her new novel. Lahiri does not disappoint with The Lowland, the story of two brothers who are only 15 months apart in age, but who take very different paths as they grow to adulthood.

Subhash is the older brother, and he is very close to Udayan as they grow up and enter college. It is in the 1960s, and India is experiencing unrest with Maoist student and revolutionary factions competing with each other and protesting, often violently, against government injustice. Subhash doesn't want to become involved in politics and revolution, viewing the violence as wrongheaded, and pursues graduate education in the United States. Udayan takes another approach, and gets deeply involved in a Maoist party that plans and undertakes violent acts. Although he marries and is ostensibly living a responsible life, his revolutionary actions result in his arrest and death. Subhash returns home for Udayan's funeral, and offers a different life to Udayan's widow Gauri, who is pregnant with Udayan's child.

The novel follows Subhash, Gauri, and their daughter Bela, as they make a life in Rhode Island. But Gauri is harboring a secret that will not allow her to love Subhash and Bela as she should, and she abandons them when Bela is 12. As the story progresses, we can see how that abandonment takes root and affects all of them as the decades pass. As a reader, I felt empathy for all of the characters, even as they made choices that I think were heartless and cruel. As the years go by, they grow and come to a sort of peace with their lives and choices.

Lahiri's writing is beautiful and her characters are well-drawn. She writes from the viewpoint of all of the major characters, most often from the perspectives of Subhash, Gauri, and Bela. She describes the culture shock that anyone must feel going from one culture to a very different one, especially in the 1970s when we didn't have so much access to mass media and communication. The historical perspective is very interesting, but it doesn't weigh down the book at all. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys contemporary fiction.

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