Review: The Lowland

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September 9, 2013 by markstani

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is a book which rewards persistence: spooling out over oceans and lifetimes, from the fiery origins of West Bengal’s Naxalite movement in the late 1960s, to Autumnal New England academia.
As you would expect from an author whose previous work has earned her the Pulitzer Prize, ‘The Lowland’ is written with absolute assuredness; a stubborn refusal to follow conventional plot paths which might have turned this novel into something quite different.
Because much as the gripping opening section of ‘The Lowland’ might indicate otherwise, this is not overtly a book about Maoist terrorism: merely one about characters whose lives are shaped irrevocably as a result of it.
Two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, grow up inseparable in a suburb of Calcutta known as Tollygunge, a place half-submerged in ponds of water hyacinth. As they grow older their paths diverge: Udayan is increasing drawn to the creeping insurgency; Subhash escapes to college in America.

Again Subhash was the lookout. Again alert to every sound.
They crossed a wooden bridge that spanned a narrow section of Tolly’s Nullah. It was a neighborhood considered remote when they were younger, where they’d been told not to wander.
Subhash held the flashlight. He illuminated a section of the wall. It was close to midnight. They’d told their parents they were going to a late show of a film.
He stood close. He held his breath. The pond frogs were calling, monotonous, insistent.
He watched as Udayan dipped the paintbrush into the can. He was writing, in English,
Long live Naxalbari!

Ultimately, Udayan’s pursuit of the cause will come to affect all those closest to him, from his ageing parents to his new wife, Gauri, and the child he will never see. Both Subhash and Gauri are forced to make extraordinary choices as they try to come to terms with events which hurl them together in a most unlikely alliance.
The rump of this novel is about the consequences of those choices in the decades that follow, as Subhash and Gauri forge new lives in America, still inexorably bound to and influenced Udayan’s tragic fate.
‘The Lowland’, then, turns into something quite different to what it says on the tin. Those expecting some sort of left-wing polemic will be disappointed: there is much more Joyce Carol Oates here than Arundhati Roy.
Early reviews like this one in the Independent (though beware, it contains a ridiculous amount of spoilers) have questioned the depth of Lahiri’s characters and the plausibility of their motives, and while it may be true that individual characterizations are not the book’s strong point, the author’s ability to immerse the reader into their chaotic, confused minds – to make the implausible entirely plausible – is second to none: it makes the final third of this novel, in which the remaining central characters drift towards old age, its most persuasive.
Like I say, this is a novel to stick with. There are occasional moments when the momentum threatens to stumble, particularly as it veers from its Naxalite roots to its contrasting setting across the Atlantic, but the result is deep and thought-provoking; a concluding shift back to West Bengal completes the perfect circle.
It’s easy to see why ‘The Lowland’ has made it onto this year’s MAN Booker Prize longlist. It’s the most accomplished of those I’ve seen or read so far, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it go further.


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