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.

We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names is the story of Darling and her friends. Darling is ten and lives in an unnamed African country (it bears a resemblance to Zimbabwe) in an area ironically named Paradise. As the novel begins, they are on their way out of their district:

We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going. There are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I’d rather die for guavas. We didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out.

Budapest is the rich area and their meeting with a woman from London, visiting her father’s house, serves to illustrate the disparity between the two lifestyles. Darling dreams of a better life, a life like this one, with her Aunt Fostalina in America where she’ll be ‘eating real food and doing better things than stealing’.

After the grim first half of the novel (in the first two chapters alone a priest rapes a woman in full view of his congregation and Chipo’s revealed to have become pregnant by her grandfather), Darling’s dream comes true and she moves to America. But of course, the reality of living in American cannot meet the quality of the dream in Darling’s head.

We Need New Names really is a novel of two halves. The first half, although grim, is very engaging. Bulawayo shows us what it’s like to live in poverty and in thrall to the West – the children’s games are ‘Find Bin Laden’ and the country game:

But first we have to fight over the names because everybody wants to be certain countries, like everybody wants to be the U.S.A. and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France and Italy and Sweden and Germany and Russia and Greece and them. These are the country-countries…Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, like Sri-Lanka, and not even this one we live in – who wants to be in a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?

The prose is rhythmic and enchanting, propelling us through the disjointed scenes of Darling’s life.

However, the second half of the novel feels sterile and cold in comparison. The shift from Africa to America is swift and involves a disconcerting change in voice: Darling has been bullied at school on arrival and so has changed her accent and dialect in an attempt to fit in. Unfortunately I wasn’t entirely convinced by this.

America is also grim, although in an entirely different way: Aunt Fostalina follows an exercise regime that her husband despairs of:

…You know me, I actually don’t understand why you are doing all this. What are you doing to yourself, Fostalina, really-exactly-what? Kick. And punch. And kick. And punch. Look at you, bones bones bones. All bones. And for what? They are not even African, those women you are doing like, shouldn’t that actually tell you something?

In a side-note to a school day, a boy guns down his classmates and porn is easily accessible by teenagers with an internet connection.

It’s in the American section that we see the crux of the novel: what it’s like to be an (illegal) immigrant. What it feels like to work two jobs to survive knowing that you can’t go home and eventually realising that you belong in neither your home country or your adopted one, having elements of both but a full understanding of neither.

We Need New Names is a novel that shows real promise. There’s no question that Bulawayo can write and there were sections of the book that I really engaged with. Unfortunately the novel was just too patchy – both in terms of feeling like an interlinked short story collection as opposed to a novel and because of the abrupt change in the voice – to be declared a success. However, I will be looking out for Bulawayo’s next work and hoping that it sees her potential fulfilled.

Thanks to Vintage for the review copy.