Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book Review: "The Lowland" by Jhumpa Lahiri

"Subhash was thirteen, older by fifteen months. But he had no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there."

Subhash and Udayan are nearly inseparable growing up. They share the same room, enjoy the same things, study many of the same subjects. But what has always set them apart is that while Subhash is the dutiful, quiet one, never anxious to make waves or cause trouble, Udayan is a bit of a firebrand, always interested in pushing the envelope, and getting caught up in a sense of adventure.

As they grow up in the mid- to late 1960s, they attend separate colleges in India but both return home each day. However, while Subhash is devoted to his scientific studies, Udayan becomes more interested in the Naxalite movement, a rebellion which follows Maoist ideals, and pits rich against poor in an effort to eliminate poverty and inequality. When Udayan leaves home to follow the movement, Subhash decides to go to America to pursue his research studies in Rhode Island.

Through infrequent letters from his brother, Subhash learns how the Naxalite movement is growing increasingly violent and causing crackdowns across India. He also learns that, in defiance of the custom of arranged marriage, Udayan has married Gauri, a fiercely independent student, and moved back in with their parents. Then Subhash learns that tragedy has befallen his brother, so he returns to India to be with his parents. And it is there, as he tries to make sense of what happened to his brother, and what will happen to Gauri, that Subhash makes the most uncharacteristic decision of his life, one which has ramifications for years to come.

This is a book about the bonds of family and the connections (and lack thereof) fueled by different relationships. It's also a powerful meditation on all types of loss. Jhumpa Lahiri, who won a Pulitzer Prize and has written some absolutely memorable books, is a beautiful writer, with a tremendous lyricism to her words and a quiet power that emanates through her stories.

I'm sad to say that this book, however, just didn't grab me as all of her earlier books (Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth) did. I don't know if the distance that each of the characters really kept from each other made me feel that same distance from them and their stories, or if I just never quite warmed up to the story, but for the most part, I never found the book entirely compelling. I read it hoping that something would grab me, but it never happened.

Jhumpa Lahiri is definitely a writer worth reading. If you've never read her books before, I'd encourage you to pick up any one of them—perhaps start with The Namesake—and prepare to marvel at her writing. But read those before trying her latest, so you really see how much she can shine.

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