Wednesday 4 June 2014

Book Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I'm sneaking in a last minute review, ahead of this evening's announcement of the winner of The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. Jhumpa Lahiri's latest novel is one of the shortlisted six, and if I don't write about it now, I'm afraid my opinion might be forever coloured by knowing the outcome.

The Lowland is the story of two Indian brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, born in Calcutta in the 1960s. Close in age and 'similar enough in build to draw from a single pile of clothes', they're often mistaken for each other, conditioned to answer to either name. But their personalities are different; Subhash, born first, is placid and obedient, while Udayan is more daring.

Communist ideas are spreading civil unrest throughout the country and beyond, and, as they grow into adulthood, Udayan becomes increasingly involved with the Naxalites. They practice an ideology prepared to resort to violence in support of the peasant sharecroppers of West Bengal and, despite Udayan's attempts to get his brother to join him, Subhash cannot approve and decides to pursue his studies in America. Udayan begs him not to
'You're the other side of me, Subhash. It's without you that I'm nothing. Don't go.'
But despite this, it's Udayan who's first to leave, travelling outside the city. As Subhash departs for Rhode Island and a university campus where he's the only foreigner, their parents are left alone in their house in the district of Tollygunge, building an extension for a family that seems increasingly remote.

The first part of The Lowland sets out the prevailing political situation and, although it also introduces the two brothers, it seems quite slow to build. Once Subhash moves to America, his experiences as a stranger in a foreign land, building his first tentative relationships, are more engaging. And when Udayan's actions draw Subhash back to his parents' home in Calcutta, the impact of events really begins to take hold.

The overall effect is to catch you unawares; the narrative encircles you as it's told from multiple perspectives, layering its insights over the decades, until it has you in its grasp. Lahiri examines both the immigrant experience and the sensation of returning to a homeland which has moved on. She meditates on the ties of family, on love and loss, ideology and the pursuit of your own course regardless of the needs of others.

The beautifully descriptive and measured prose returns time and again to the lowland behind the Mitra's home in Tollygunge. Sometimes this land contains two separate ponds, choking with water hyacinth, but during the monsoon season it floods, so they merge and overflow. It is a childhood playground, a life-changing hiding place and a site for remembrance which might simply cease to be.

By the time I'd finished reading, although never quite shaking off a certain sense of detachment, I loved this book. Does its evocative ending make up for its slow beginning? I'm not sure, but we'll soon find out whether the judges of the Baileys Prize think it does.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri is published in the U.K. by Bloomsbury. Thanks to The Book Club (@_bookclub) for my prize-winning copy. 

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