Oct/Nov 2013 Reviews & Interviews

The Lowland

The Lowland
Jhumpa Lahiri.
Bloomsbury. 2013. 339 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 4455 7.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! This is a good story and well told, but I had problems with it from the beginning.

My first problem was with the author's abrupt, telegraphic style. Short paragraphs are broken into brief subjectless phrases that often make complete nonsense. Paragraphs, too, are arbitrarily divided into small blocks of text, as if the author is afraid that the reader's attention will lapse if she uses longer sequences of words. It was a while before the story absorbed me enough to distract me from these stylistic quirks.

My second problem was that now that the book has been short-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, I expected it not just to be well written but also uniquely different in some way. The Lowlands, however, is a family saga that fits into a well-established genre in which life in the protagonist's home country, where war, terrorism and/or civil strife prevail, is contrasted with life in (usually) America or England. Maybe I expected too much. Literary prizes, as Julian Barnes has famously said, are "posh bingo"—a lottery which says more about the judges than about the quality of the listed books, and clearly very many equally deserving books remain unlisted.

The Lowland deals with a family, all of whose lives are radically affected by one member's active involvement with the Maoist Naxalite movement in Calcutta. Compared with wars and unrest in other parts of the world, this is a little-known and ongoing part of the history of West Bengal. Jhumpa Lahiri sets her story in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the movement began, and historical events and characters are woven into her narrative easily and naturally as the story unfolds.

Beginning in Calcutta, the book follows the life of Subhash Mitra from his early years of closeness with his brother Udayan; through his college years to graduate study in America; marriage to his brother's widow, Gauri; his relationship with his parents and with Bela, the daughter of Gauri and Udayan who believes him to be her father; and the eventual disclosure of Bela's true parenthood. All the characters are well-developed, and each has chapters which deal with their lives and feelings, so that different psychologies, perspectives, and attitudes to life are explored. Occasionally, especially in the chapters dealing with Gauri's life in California, my interest lapsed, but on the whole I was held by a desire to know what happened next.

In the end, I thought this a fairly interesting story, but no better or worse than a number of others I have read this year.


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