Before I started this blog, I read all of Jhumpa Lahiri’s book and is a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri. I have read all of her books, the short stories and a novel “The Namesake”. I thought Lahiri is superb in short stories but I wasn’t sure if her novel would live up to my expectations. It tends to drag a little….
Drag a little it did but I was glad that I haven’t read any reviews about the book, so I have no preconceptions whatsoever, and now that it is shortlisted for Bailey Women Prize for Fiction and once shortlisted as Man Booker Prize last year, it have me really curious.
From Subhash’s earliest memories in Calcutta in the 60’s, at every point, his brother was there. In the suburban streets of Calcutta where they wandered before dusk and in the hyacinth-strewn ponds where they played for hours on end, the lowland was their playground. Udayan – impulsive and charismatic finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, imagines himself Che Guevara, secret messaging, plotting and planting bombs. Subhash, quiet and submissive, on the other hand, just want to go away and study abroad in America.
Spoiler warning: At this point, if you want to read the book I suggest you don’t read some potential spoilers. It is difficult for me to review this book without revealing the plot.
Here, Lahiri follows a familiar plot in frequently used themes of Bollywood movies, brothers who followed different paths in life and find their worlds (dead or alive) converge and collide at the end. As in all similar themes of books that Lahiri has written, it is the immigrant experience that stands out. Subhash adapted to his new life in Rhones Island and has a short relationship with American woman. Subhash returned to India in a less than happy circumstances because Udayan is killed. Subhash met Gauri, his brother’s widow, now pregnant, ill-treated by his own parents. Subhash’s love and loyalty to his brother felt that the only right thing to do was to marry Gauri and offers her the opportunity to go to America with him.
Gauri then experience the early immigrant life in America. If you ever read The Immigrant by Manju Kapur before about an Indian woman life journey in America, it feels like déjà vu for me. A gradual change of shedding the saris for western clothes, taking the first step from the four walls of the house out into the world, finding solace in library and books and finally find a way to breakout and reinvent herself. Gauri’s experience follow the same vein but to a more drastic effect. Gauri has done an unforgiveable act that hurt the ones closest to her.
The ever presence memory of Udayan have haunted Subhash and Gauri to the extent that it influenced the course of their lives and the chain of events that happened after that, against the backdrop of a changing India and America. Of obligations and passions, of parental love and abandonment, of choices that we make and the blood and genetics that run in our blood, of destiny that we cannot shake; the novel explores lives across India and America, in a span of 50 years, taking the narration style of flipping between two different geographical locations and the past and the present.
Lahiri writes in the usual haunting, heartbreaking prose that I know. One thing that struck me personally is of Lahiri’s courage to write about a mother who is incapable of loving her own children, whose maternal instinct is not an instinct but an attempt, whose priority is in intellectual pursuit but not child bearing. It breaks the mould of a stereotype image of a loving mother. It reminds me of my own. She is with us and yet not with us. She is suppose to put us as her first priority but she didn’t. I spent my days afraid that I may carry the same genes, I try hard to be a different person than she is and yet felt the draw of that similar trait……
I was gripped by 40% into the book. It is a powerful and a moving story, written with words that hurt and heal. The effect is still with me after finishing the book yesterday. It has been shortlisted for the National Book Award 2013, The Man Booker Prize 2013 and the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014. I didn’t expect it to be great but I love it for my own personal reasons. I hate to think that The Lowland will be shortlisted for so many book awards yet not win any but it will be difficult to stand out against the other equally strong and great calibre writers in the Bailey Women Prize for fiction shortlist this round (namely Americanah and Burial Rites). Some parts of this book do drag on a little.
This is the closest women’s prize for fiction competition ever, since I began to read most of the shortlists for the past four years. So far, I love Americanah, Burial Rites and now, The Lowland. I have a nagging feeling that I have rated every book I read higher and appreciated them a lot more recently. Is it because I have taken my own time to read these days and no longer rushing them through or I am in fact reading many great books since February this year? I think it is both.
I will see if I feel the same about The Goldfinch. I doubt it.
p/s: if you can’t stand reading about characters who are incapable of being happy, skip this.
My own Kindle copy. [Bloomsbury 2014], [416 pages], Calcutta and USA, Finished reading at 18 April 2014. Friday.
About the writer:
Jhumpa Lahiri (Bengali: ঝুম্পা লাহিড়ী; born on July 11, 1967) is an Indian American author. Lahiri’s debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and her first novel, The Namesake (2003), was adapted into the popular film of the same name. She was born Nilanjana Sudeshna but goes by her nickname (or in Bengali, her “Daak naam”) Jhumpa. Lahiri is a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama.
Lahiri was born in London, the daughter of Indian immigrants from the state of West Bengal. Her family moved to the United States when she was two; Lahiri considers herself an American, stating, “I wasn’t born here, but I might as well have been.” Lahiri grew up in Kingston, Rhode Island, where her father Amar Lahiri works as a librarian at the University of Rhode Island; he is the basis for the protagonist in “The Third and Final Continent,” the closing story from Interpreter of Maladies. Lahiri’s mother wanted her children to grow up knowing their Bengali heritage, and her family often visited relatives in Calcutta (now Kolkata).
When she began kindergarten in Kingston, Rhode Island, Lahiri’s teacher decided to call her by her pet name, Jhumpa, because it was easier to pronounce than her “proper name”. Lahiri recalled, “I always felt so embarrassed by my name…. You feel like you’re causing someone pain just by being who you are.” Lahiri’s ambivalence over her identity was the inspiration for the ambivalence of Gogol, the protagonist of her novel The Namesake, over his unusual name. Lahiri graduated from South Kingstown High School and received her B.A. in English literature from Barnard College in 1989.
Lahiri then received multiple degrees from Boston University: an M.A. in English, M.F.A. in Creative Writing, M.A. in Comparative Literature, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. She took a fellowship at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center, which lasted for the next two years (1997–1998). Lahiri has taught creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design.
In 2001, Lahiri married Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, a journalist who was then Deputy Editor of TIME Latin America, and who is now Senior Editor of TIME Latin America. Lahiri lives in Rome, Italy with her husband and their two children, Octavio (b. 2002) and Noor (b. 2005)