Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Title: The Lowland
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for sexual themes

Subhash and Udayan Mitra are brothers who grow up inseparable in Calcutta in the 1960s. In their early 20s, their paths diverge when Subhash leaves to study for a PhD in America, and Udayan stays behind to protest the injustices of the government. Subhash recognizes that he and his brother are growing apart, especially when Udayan gets married, and Subhash continues his monkish existence in Rhode Island. When [spoiler alert!] Udayan dies at the hands of the police, Subhash returns to India and makes the grandest and most complicated decision of his life-- he marries Udayan's pregnant wife, Gauri. And then both of them keep the whole story a secret from their daughter, Bela, who grows up knowing nothing of Udayan and believing Subhash is her biological father.

As a writer, I recognize that a life like mine wouldn't make a good novel. For one thing, there are too many characters. I have six kids, a husband, parents, a bunch of friends, kids' friends in and out of the house at all hours of the day and night, and nearly a dozen siblings and in-laws. I've noticed that the people who inhabit novels often live very solitary lives. And this is true of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland. When Subhash brings Gauri to Rhode Island, their isolation, both from each other and from the world around them, feels profound. It feels like these two (and eventually these three) people live with a whole world around them, but engrossed in their own lives. Gauri, in particular, seems unable to shake her own sorrow and her lack of maternal instinct toward  Bela. The early chapters of the book are rich and engrossing, and the second half is very sad. I kept expecting a sort of redemption for Gauri to come at the end of the novel, as it seems to come for Subhash and Bela, but it didn't come. If there had been more of a catharsis, I think I would have given the book five stars, but the end felt like a quiet anticlimax, which is probably more fitting, seeing how the characters lived their lives, but made for a less satisfying read.

1 comment:

ellen said...

I'm reading this book right now. Maybe I'll finish it on my cross-country flight tomorrow. I think Jhumpa Lahiri is a terrific writer (I heard her speak at MIT a few years ago and she's really cool).