Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

In The Lowland Jhumpa Lahiri returns to her favored themes of cultural duality and assimilation. The late 1960's was a turbulent time in India with widespread poverty and few job opportunities for educated young men. Udayan becomes involved in the Naxalites, a radical Maoist movement to help the poor. Subhash, his cautious older brother, immigrates to the USA for a PhD in science.

Larhiri beautiful prose is layered with an earthy sense of place and symbolic imagery:
"The flooded plain was thick with water hyacinth. The floating weed grew aggressively. Its leaves caused the surface to appear solid. Green in contrast to the blue of the sky. Simple huts stood here and there along the periphery. The poor waded in to forage for what was edible. In autumn egrets arrived, their white feathers darkened from the city's soot, waiting motionless for their prey."
After tragedy strikes in Calcutta, Subhash makes a personal sacrifice to bring his brother's wife to the USA. Young Gauri arrives pregnant in a sari to Rhode Island in winter. She only feels at home when she audits a Philosophy class. The saga unfolds over decades as we follow the family through shifting points of view.
"His  favorite moments were when he was alone, or felt alone. Lying in bed in the morning, watching sunlight flickering like a restless bird on the wall."
Jhumpa Lahiri portrait by Elena Seibert
My one regret (beyond the cover) was that The Lowland centered on Subhash and only tangentially on his rebellious brother. Subhash was a kind, likable character, but he lacked the charisma to carry a novel, and Gauri was too selfish to rouse much empathy. For a student of Philosophy, Gauri lacked a moral code. I wish there had been more about her daughter, a lost child of two cultures. Bela reminded me of Gogol in The Namesake (Lahiri's first novel)but Bela's story was abridged. It's a sign of a good book when you reach the last page longing for more.
"Opening the door, he saw that the tide was in. The sky was bright, the ocean calm; no sign, apart from all the seaweed that had washed like empty nests up on the sand, of the storm there had been."
As much as I love Lahiri's novels, I prefer her short stories. Her character-driven narratives work best in a tighter story arc. The Interpreter of Maladies (1999), her Pulitzer Prize winning debut, was my favorite collection. However, my Indian American friends swear by The Namesake (2004). It doesn't matter where you start; if you read one of Lahiri's books, you'll want to read them all. The Lowland will be released on September 24th, 2013.

Reviewer's Disclosure: this book was reviewed for Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. I received a free ARC but was not otherwise compensated.


Amanda Summer said...

I have wanted to read Lahiri's work but now I am even more motivated to do so. The excerpts you included border on dreamscapes.

tina said...

You are such a professional book review writer I think you should change professions:)

Sarah Laurence said...

Amanda, you would love the strong female characters and lyrical tone in Lahiri's work.

Tina, thanks! I wouldn't say no if someone offered me a paid review gig, but I probably have my hands full with painting commissions and writing fiction.

A Cuban In London said...

Having read three reviews so far of this novel, I have to say that yours is just as good as the three if not better than one of them (I won't way which one, but HE really gets on my nerves sometimes :-D). I have to admit that I am familiar with Jhumpa the short-story writer more than Jhumpa the novelist. The first tale of The Interpreter of Maladies has stayed with me forever, especially because the setting is a blackout. That was common in Cba in the 90s. I've heard so many good things about this new novel that I have put it in my to-buy list. I read an excerpt in The New Yorker recently and I got the same impression you have, that the character of Subhash had much more weight than other characters and yet he more peripheral to the main narrative.

Great review. I really enjoyed it. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Elizabeth said...

Just catching up on your recent posts.
I hope your son has the most amazing college experience - at a wonderful school.
How healthy and super that he was rushing forward to embrace the new.
Poor you! You will get used to it pretty quickly I think.
Actually, it's rather thrilling being empty-nesters.
I got to know my husband again which was a good thing.

walk2write said...

I agree with you on the book cover. It's lackluster. What's inside of it sounds promising though. If at the end of it, you're left with wanting to know more of the story, it must be good.

Margie said...

Sarah, you do an excellent review,
It's on my list of "to reads"
I have so many now but I do love a good book!
I agree on the cover, very unimaginative.

Thanks for the review.

How is your son doing at college and how is mom holding up?

Take care ...

troutbirder said...

Interesting. I love to delve into other times, people and places. Perhaps living in a monochromatic semi isolated small Middle American town drives me to it...:)

Sarah Laurence said...

ARC allows me to form my own opinion. I have since noticed several positive reviews.

Ewix and Margie, I’m adjusting quite well, although I still miss them. It’s been a productive week and also nice to have more couple time with Henry. Our son is making friends, sorting out his classes and taken up piano again.

W2W and Margie, sometimes ARCs lack the cover art so I initially thought this was the case, but the American publisher stuck with the minimal design.

Troutbirder, I hear you in Maine.

Liviania said...

I'm not a big fan of Lahiri, actually. From what it sounds like, this one contains most of this issues that bother me about her writing.

Carol said...

Great review Sarah. I love Lahiri's work . . . 'The Namesake' being my favorite but I love her voice throughout her writings. I look forward to reading this latest book.