‘The Lowland’, by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013)

imgres-2Not to sound like I’m obsessed with prizes at the moment, but when I first saw the 2013 Booker longlist, I recall mentally noting down ‘The Lowland’ as a book to read.  Two years later and I’ve finally done it.  It is a mature and grown-up book though, so my slight delay hasn’t hurt the reading experience and has just made the reward all the sweeter.

Actually, I feel like a mature and grown-up reader for sticking with this book, because it took me a very long time to really get into it.  The novel starts in 1950s Calcutta and presents a loving but intense sibling relationship between the brothers Subhash and Udayan.  Then it moves into the 1960s and the start of the Naxalite movement.  I am woefully ignorant about this period of India’s history and it was interesting to learn about the politics of the time, but this is a long book and I wasn’t that engaged by the story yet; I was starting to worry that my expectations had been too high.

The brothers grow up, one becoming drawn further and further into political rebellion, the other physically and emotionally withdrawing himself from his roots.  In fact, after setting up the exciting daredevil Udayan, the novel then follows Subhash to the sterile Rhode Island as the political disturbances in Calcutta escalate.  Udayan, incidentally, is a devoted reader of socialist literature and I was thrilled to be told that he was illicitly studying What is to be Done (though I can’t say it made me respect him more).

Then, just when I was wondering if maybe the remaining 300 pages of cultural isolation were going to be too much for me, Lahiri introduced Gauri and the novel came alive.  Gauri seemed to be taking on a traditional female role, bridging the ideological and physical divide between the brothers, but she is quickly revealed to be so much more complex than this.  Fiercely independent, passionate and intelligent  she goes further than any of the men in the book when it comes to following dreams and following through on choices.

‘The Lowland’ is a slow burn of a book, but the emotional weight builds up over the pages and I’m so pleased I stuck with it.  I do feel, however, that the blurb is misleading.  This isn’t a novel about brotherly love so much as it is about motherhood and the fight between an intellectual or a physical escape from convention.  Without wishing to be melodramatic, I’d place it alongside ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and ‘A History of Love’ for disturbing representations of maternal affection.  It’s not the novel that I expected, but it’s one that I’m very pleased to have read.

As a side note, this puts me at 4/13 for reading the Man Book 2013 longlist.  In order of enjoyment, I’ve read:

  • The Luminaries (which I loved and feels like a deserved winner from my limited knowledge of the list).
  • The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann (I found this extremely readable and thoroughly enjoyed it, though I can see why it didn’t get onto the shortlist).
  • Almost English (I wish, wish, wish that this had been a series of short stories, because I found the first chapter incredible and really liked individual scenes and set-pieces throughout.  It didn’t work as a novel for me though, and by the end I was really struggling with it).

The Man Booker 2013 Longlist

The next book from this list that I plan to read is ‘Harvest’, by Jim Crace.  If it’s a good as ‘The Lowland’, you should expect an extremely happy post at some point in the future.

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13 Responses to ‘The Lowland’, by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013)

  1. roughghosts says:

    I have not read Lowland, but I suspect you will find Harvest a very different experience. It is spare and abstracted in that it does not specify exactly where or when it is set. I did enjoy it very much.

    Funny that so much has been made of the diversity reflected in this year’s long and short lists but I look back at this list and it excites me much more. I always valued the Commonwealth focus of the Booker, including American authors seems to dilute the impact for me (and I am American by birth if not by literary focus). I also loved The Luminaries, not a common feeling among those I know. It also won the Governor General Award here in Canada owing to Catton’s Canadian birth. I have also read the Ryan and the Toibín which left me somewhat underwhelmed, but my expectations were high. From the remaining titles I am especially keen to read We Need New Names. I’ve had the book for years but I recently read a piece by the author that has pulled it back into my “soon-ish” TBR pile.

    • I’ve read the first page of ‘Harvest’ so many times while window shopping at bookshops. I’m starting to wonder how long it will take me to read it, it’s one of those books that sits so comfortably on the TBR pile!
      I really agree with you about the diversity of the prize, especially as the Americans on the current short list have not lacked international publicity. The Man Booker has been one of the very few ways that Commonwealth fiction gets a high profile in the UK and, no offense to Anne Tyler, I feel the Americans have so many more platforms over here.
      ‘We Need New Names’ does sound great – I look forward to reading what you make of it.

  2. FictionFan says:

    I feel the blurb for The Lowland led to disappointed expectations all round – it led me to believe that it was going to be mainly set in India and mostly about the whole Naxalite thing – boy, was I wrong! Personally I thought Harvest was a far superior book, but my winner for that year was the actual winner, The Luminaries. Loved We Need New Names too – it’s a bit unbalanced but the pros heavily outweighed the cons. I feel I’m almost totally echoing Roughghosts and you, but the Booker has lost me now with its weighting towards American fiction or fiction by people living in America. I used to love the Commonwealth aspects of it.

    • Overall, I feel the same about The Man Booker as the Baileys, totally on board when I like the list and generally disinterested and disillusioned when it didn’t work for me. As a general point though, I do feel the Booker has lost some of its interest through including Amercan writers. It’s really hard not to feel like they’ve squeezed out a less famous UK or Commonwealth author.
      I agree that the blurb for The Lowland made lots of odd choices, not least, only dealing with the start of the novel. I’m all for avoiding spoilers but this took it way to far!

  3. JacquiWine says:

    I enjoyed your Lowland review, Shoshi. I read the book when it appeared on the Booker list and completely agree with your comments on the slow burn nature of the story. Gauri is such a complex and compelling character, isn’t she? I still find myself reflecting on her story every now and again. I, too, loved The Luminaries and Jim Crace’s Harvest – you’ve got a great book to look forward to there.

    • I thought she was by far and away the most interesting character in the novel, in fact, one of the most interested fictional female characters I have encountered in a long time. Especially given her introduction as a somewhat stock figure, Lahiri keeps on subverting expectations to make her a serious, complex, heavy-weight literary creation.

  4. Nish says:

    I am also not enthused by the Booker this year. Looking back, the 2013 Booker list was so strong, so interesting, and so diverse. While I don’t have strong opinions about including American novelists in the Booker, I find the actual books selected seem very uninteresting. Anyway, we shall see.

    I read The Lowland earlier this year, and I agree with you that the blurb is misleading. But I also found the book a bit disjointed, and felt the second half seemed to unconnected to the first. Still a lovely book, and I enjoyed the writing tremendously.

    • I don’t think it’s a flawless book (and I do prefer ‘The Luminaries’) but I was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying it. As for the current prize, so far I think ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ is superb. It’s one of those books I probably would not have read were it not for its place on the list, and for that I am extremely grateful to this year’s judges.

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  6. Sarah says:

    I also wondered why the blurb didn’t reflect the novel’s content, although maybe from a marketing perspective, sibling relationships shift more copies than controversial maternal choices, especially as those choices are written in such a non-judgmental way. It was a while ago that I read it, but I still find myself brooding on ideas of ‘freedom’, our entitlement to it, and the consequences of our freedom on others. I thought it was a really impressive thought-provoking novel.

    • I think you’re right, and it must have been a hard sell for the publishers (first dealing with a under-known military uprising, then dismissing it for unfashionable family relationship themes). It took me a while to get into ‘The Lowland’, but, like you’ve said, I suspect it’s book that will stay with me.

  7. We just voted on three books for our book group and The Lowland sat between My Brilliant Friend (which got voted in) and A Little Life (which a few felt was going to be heavy weather) – have a nasty feeling this book will continue to get moved further down the pile. After reading your review it just slipped down a couple of books…

    • So many books and so little time! I recently read ‘My Brilliant Friend’ and loved it – though I do think it was a case of the right book at the right time. Behind as I am, I haven’t got round to reviewing it yet… I’ll be really interested to hear what you and your book group make of it.

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