Thursday, October 3, 2013

Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland

Everyone, everywhere, is weighing in on the latest novel from Pulitzer recipient Lahiri and the reviews are almost all glowing. The book was on the shortlist for the Booker prize before it even hit the stores. And honestly, I really, really wanted to love this novel as much as I did, say, The Namesake. Perhaps readers will think that I'm just playing devil's advocate but the fact is that I'm not swooning even though I'll be the first to say that there's great book discussion potential here.

There are so many things that I can't tell you about this novel without giving away key points that you'd rather learn for yourself. Let me say this. Unless you're a glutton for punishment you'll want to get past the first fifty pages quickly, a long, dry history of the Naxalite movement (more information than needed to move the plot forward in my opinion), an apparently Communist based terror organization that was operating in India, Calcutta in particular, during the second half of the twentieth century.

Two brothers, Subhash and Udayan are at the heart of the story. We are to believe that they are so close as to be inseparable growing up yet their actions speak louder than Ms. Lahiri's words. She does not adhere to the old rule of fiction, "show, don't tell." In fact, the boys are polar opposites. Their story reminded me of how I used to be so incensed by the parable of the prodigal son. So unfair!

 Subhash older and more responsible, is a brilliant student who wishes only to please his parents, to make them proud. Udayan, on the contrary, is a careless charmer, the object of his mother's unfathomable worship. He is also secretly, deeply involved in the Naxalite organization, a fact that causes Subhash a great deal of pain. With no passion for politics himself, he is incapable of understanding his brother's willingness to put their family at risk as the movement grows more violent. He also understands that if anything should happen to Udayan, his parents would break under the loss.

Offered the opportunity to do marine research in a doctoral program in the states, Subhash leaves Calcutta for Rhode Island where he forges a lonely but not unsatisfactory life of scholarship. Letters from Udayan are slow in coming and when they do the tenor seems off. Seemingly over night Udayan is morphing into a traditional Indian man, marrying a fellow student and settling into a single room in his parents' home.

The rift between the brothers is exacerbated by time and distance until one day, the news that he's always dreaded, pulls Subhash back to India and to a decision that will alter his life. This novel is really not about politics but about family, what it means to be responsible for the life of another, what constitutes a family and why some must walk away from its ties to save themselves while others embrace it for the same reason.

If you've already read The Lowland I'd love to hear your thoughts. If you haven't, I've got a pre-publication copy I can send to you. Let's get a conversation going!

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