The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri

Because I follow a lot of bookish people on Twitter, I often see conversations about books that people have ‘given up’ on. What they mean by this is they’ve tried the book in question and decided that it’s not for them. The number of pages usually cited as being an appropriate number upon which to make a decision is fifty. I mention this because I have commented in reply to this idea that I don’t give up on books. I don’t say this in an attempt at virtuousness, I sometimes think that it’s a fault on my part – what if I’m missing out on something? – is the question in my head and more often, it’s the ending of a novel that I find disappointing, not the opening.

The other reason I open my review of The Lowland with this thought is that I almost did give up on it. I began reading it last October as I was shadowing the Man Booker Prize shortlist with some of my students. The week I’d scheduled it for was a busy one and all of us arrived at the meeting not having finished reading it. I was on p87 and up to this point had found it too episodic; just as I was becoming interested in the events of the section I was reading, the novel moved on. I found it disjointed and the mostly simple and compound sentences that made up the short paragraphs stilted. I put it down and moved on to the next book, not giving up on it but not considering a time I would return to it either, despite people whose opinions I trust (including guest blogger Jacqui) insisting it was a very good novel.

And then The Lowland was longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize and as I shadow the prize, attempting to read all the eligible books, I knew I had to return to it. I picked it off the shelf on Thursday evening. By Saturday lunchtime, I’d finished it and it was undoubtedly the best book I’ve read so far this year.

The Lowland is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan who live in Calcutta with their parents. When the novel begins, they are thirteen and eleven-years-old respectively. But [Subhash] had no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. There, in the second chapter of the novel is the Tolly Club, the private members’ club where the wealthy of Calcutta go to play tennis and golf, to ride or swim, to drink tea or cocktails. The boys have never seen inside the club due to the wall that was raised to prevent spectators, a wall that they’ve decided to scale. They visit regularly until the evening they are caught by a policeman and thrashed. It would take several days for the welts to go down.

Personality wise the boys are opposites; Udayan is brave and unrestrained, while Subhash tries to ‘minimize his existance’. However:

In spite of their differences one was perpetually confused with the other, so that when either name was called both were conditioned to answer. And sometimes it was difficult to know who had answered, given that their voices were nearly indistinguishable. Sitting over the chessboard they were mirror images: one leg bent, the other splayed out, chins propped on their knees.

But by their late teens, the differences between the boys are becoming more pronounced and politics is the cause.

In 1967, a peasant revolt occurred in Naxalbari, in the Darjeeling District. Landowners illegally evicted villagers from land they’d cultivated. The peasants burned deeds and records and occupied land while carrying red flags and shouting ‘Long live Mao Tse-Tung’.

Subhash and Udayan listen to news of the events on the radio. When the West Bengal cabinet capture and kill the rebels, they have differing reactions:

Sounds like it’s over in any case, Subhash said.
Udayan paused before leaving. This could only be the beginning, he said.
The beginning of what?
Something bigger. Something else.

It’s the beginning of Udayan’s involvement in the Naxalbari movement and the two brothers growing apart. Eventually, Subhash leaves to study for a PhD in America. While Subhash is away, Udayan marries a woman – Gauri – who is also involved in the movement and then he is killed. Subhash returns to Calcutta and takes Gauri, pregnant with Udayan’s child, as his wife. Subhash goes back to America, believing they can begin a new life together.

The majority of the novel focuses on the aftermath of Udayan’s death, the consequences of which reverberate for decades. The narrative moves between Subhash and his parents but also focuses on Gauri and it is her story which interested me the most. It’s the tale of an immigrant trapped in a country not her own, in a marriage not her own, with a child she never planned to have. The claustrophobia she experiences is skilfully conveyed through Lahiri’s precisely chosen lexis. Gauri’s plight and the choices she makes are deeply affecting.

The Lowland spans almost an entire lifetime, showing the trajectories that life can take, some chosen, others forced upon the characters. Its scope feels simultaneously broad and narrow – it plays out across three continents while focused on one small family and considers themes both universal and personal – politics, women’s rights, education, marriage.

Lahiri’s writing feels similar; it is precise while conveying clear emotions and beliefs in a few, often simple, words. For example, when Gauri marries Subhash:

But even as she was going through with it she knew that it was useless, just as it was useless to save a single earring when the other half of the pair was lost.

Or when Subhash and Gauri attend at a dinner party at the house of a colleague of Subhash:

The women seemed friendly. Who where they?
I don’t remember the names, she said.

Lahiri layers her narrative, returning to events and ideas at intervals which allow events and ideas to illuminated bit by bit. Her words deserve to be savoured.

A few years ago, a university tutor told me that the idea of not being able to get into a book was nonsense; some books have a different rhythm and pace to you and you need to learn to breathe with them, to set your pace to theirs. I’m glad I managed to adjust my pace to that of Lahiri’s; The Lowland is a masterpiece.

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11 thoughts on “The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri

  1. It is interesting that you nearly gave up on it originally and then were so wowed by it later. Like you I don’t give up on books and try and find what it is I am missing . Looking forward to reaching this one on my TBR pile.

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  2. I’m so glad you were wowed by this book on returning to it! Some novels just take time to lay the foundations and set a measured pace and this is one of them. I’m sure I’ve already mentioned this, but I read The Lowland over the course of a few weeks and day by day it just burrowed its way into my mind…a real slow burner.

    I love your closing thoughts on needing to tune in to the rhythm and pace of a book; that’s such a great way of thinking.

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    • Thanks, Jacqui. Yes, I agree. The Luminaries is another one although that actually changes pace in the second half.

      Well, they’re not original thoughts, it was actually the writer Ian Samson who said that in a tutorial and it stuck. It’s the first time I’ve really understood what he meant, although there have been occasions when I know I haven’t really ‘got’ a book and I know the fault is mine, usually because I can’t give it the attention it needs at the time I’m reading it. Then I think you’re justified in putting something down and coming back to it later.

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