The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri

Today we’re offering the first Franny vs Perks review post. Although we’ve read many of the same books, The Lowland is the first to be subjected to our critical eyes. We hope that our double whammy of a post will encourage you to read a book that, although has not broken free of the numerous shortlists its been on, is undoubtedly a fantastic read.

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When my boyfriend saw the copy of The Lowland on my bed, he looked very confused. ‘But I thought the book you were reading was about India? What’s the communist symbol doing on the cover?’ Tom is pretty well versed in political history, often to a formidable and slightly grating extent, so it is telling he had not heard of the Naxalite movement in India either. The best novels reveal to us something new – whether it be a way of forming a phrase or a piece of history that escaped our notice. The Lowland is one such novel. It opens with the communist uprising in Calcutta of the 1960s, a chapter of Indian history not a well-known outside the sub-continent. It moves away slowly from this conflict to the much quieter, arguably blander setting of Rhode Island, but the violence and sadness of this doomed guerrilla struggle implicates the rest of the text, staining the lives of those who touched it.

In this final post on the Booker challenge, with the new long list just around the corner, we end with a true darling of the 2013/2014 awards season. It goes without saying that this book is a dream, recognised across the board for its deep and intricate story of an Indian family living in America. However, the Guardian christened the novel the ‘bridesmaid’ of the awards season and they have a point. Once again last Wednesday, it lost out on the Bailey’s Prize to the infinitely more challenging A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Paradoxically, The Lowland’s innate readability has probably gone against it in the literary award circles, but it remains one of the most accessible and interesting novels that has emerged from the literary haul of the past 12 months.

The cover copy of The Lowland claims that this is a story about two brothers. I would contend however that this is much more the story of one woman, a woman who will eventually give the brothers something in common aside bloodline. Gauri may be the most morally questionable of the intricate characters that populate The Lowland, but she was the character I felt the narrative pivoted upon. Unlike other immigrants on this shortlist, Gauri was born to thrive in the US – a country without marriage constraints and one of the only places in the world where a woman can fulfill their potential as an academic. She quickly cuts up her saris into ribbons and embarks on a life she could never have fulfilled in India.

Of course, nothing is ever so simple when leaving your homeland behind. She may symbolically destroy the clothes binding her to India, but Gauri’s inability to connect with her flesh and blood is a telling sign that roots cannot be forgotten. Bela is a child born of Gauri’s past life, and as such the cut ties begin to show. Whether or not her post natal depression in the novel can be totally attributed to this inability of Gauri to look back and remember her homeland is questionable but an interesting facet that sets the novel apart from similar immigrant narratives.

Another model that distinguishes The Lowland is the bizarre mother-daughter relationship it portrays. Lahiri makes such a dysfunctional dynamic completely believable even though it is the opposite of our expectations. She composes this poetry to a lost bond without sensationalism. When Franny and I heard her reading at the Bailey’s Prize, the moment she chose was the perfect one to demonstrate her skill in this area. It compromises of the Gauri discovering she can leave Bela at home alone for ten minutes a day without discovery, just to buy some milk or to return a book to the library if only for those few minutes when she can exercise the possibility of distance from her child. Eventually of course, she is discovered in this small act of rebellion, this huge betrayal of motherhood. Gauri’s actions are believable, they are compelling and we can see a very clear mindset at work. Lahiri says so much with these small actions, and makes the act of going out for milk desperately sad.

This said, I cannot argue with the judgement of either the Booker or Bailey’s judges – at the end of the day, the right books won the prizes. It is a bridesmaid only against the measure of some truly great literary novels and no doubt Lahiri has a lot more up her sleeve.

– Perks

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I was pleased when The Lowland made it onto the Baileys Prize shortlist as, having failed to read it during its Booker phase, it had fallen down my TBR pile. When I finally got to reading it in advance of the Baileys Prize announcement, I discovered, as Perks has already mentioned, that the book had an innate readability to it and was definitely a worthy contender, though its ‘bridesmaid’ status is one I inevitably supported with my allegiance firmly aligned with Burial RitesAmericanah and the ultimate winner, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.

This is not to detract from Lahiri’s achievement – amongst other novels, her book easily could have taken the prize – it’s heart-wrenching story of fractured familial relationships in unstable countries and shifting environments is an incredibly moving read, and certainly one that fits the trend that both the Booker and Baileys shortlisted novels follow – exploring the emotional consequences of geographical displacement in a culture significantly different to one’s home.

I completely agreed with Perk’s review of the importance of Gauri’s character. Certainly, she was the figure who made me feel most uncomfortably divisive in a cast of characters where no one is completely innocent. Sharing in her mourning and yearning to ease the challenges she faces as part of Subhash and Udayan’s family in a politically fractured Calcutta soon felt strangely distant as the strained relationship with her daughter, Bela, is unashamedly drawn out before the reader. However, this is a subject on which I’ve placed more and more importance in recent months – the difficulties and lack of help one faces when struggling with the ‘natural’ adaptation to motherhood. So widely accepted as an instinctual reaction to having a child, motherhood and maternal affection for a child is broken down and presented as an intense struggle – one which is very real for women across the world and yet remains almost taboo in everyday society. Lahiri’s writing presented a bold but much-needed confrontation against a too-often disregarded, topical issue.

The relationship between Subhash and his younger brother, Udayan, is equally torturous at times. Having been inseparable and often indistinguishable as children, the brothers’ once complementary dissimilar personalities soon develop into very different priorities and beliefs which threaten their fraternal bond, one that is put under extreme pressure as Subhash travels to America whilst Udayan commits himself to the Naxalite movement at home. The consequences of their decisions ripple throughout the novel and Lahiri spares no one in the brutal feelings of betrayalisolation and confusion that arise repeatedly throughout the book. From the unimaginable desperation of the parents to hold onto the relationships with a son across the world and another disillusioned with political action, to the devastating realisation of Bela, once longing for a maternal love, that it is something Gauri simply cannot offer, this novel is fraught with emotional conflicts that capture the chaos of India’s riots within a small circle of human lives.

It surprises me that this compelling book whose characters continue to haunt me comes from an author who, in the public eye, appears so restrained. At both the Booker and Baileys shortlist readings, I felt I still knew so little about this incredibly talented author in comparison to her counterparts, and yet who had, through her words, had moved me from frustration and desolation to the very beginnings of hope, who had allowed me to experience the dangerous buzz of Calcutta’s streets to the comparative calm of Rhode Island. Though this would not impact your experience of the novel, and I certainly recommend it as an accessible yet beautiful read, I hope to discover more about Lahiri when she returns with her next book which, I do not doubt, will be another one to watch.

– Franny

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3 thoughts on “The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri

  1. Two great reviews! This book is on my shelf waiting to be read at the moment, and now I’m looking forward to it. I think it makes a change for a novel to achieve success without being too complicated to follow or too heavy-going, so I’m glad that Lahiri has achieved some success with The Lowland.

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