Not 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).