Friday, January 24, 2014

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

From this novel's opening pages, when brothers Udayan and Subhash are climbing a fence to play on the golf course abutting the lowland near their home, we know that the brothers love each other and that Udayan, though the younger, is the ringleader. As they grow up, Udayan becomes a radical, part of the communist movement in Indian in the late 1960s (if, like me, you knew nothing of this movement, you will learn something from this novel). The more conservative Subhash chooses a scholarly route, moving to Rhode Island to pursue his doctorate.

Udayan writes to Subhash, minimizing his involvement in the movement, which has actually escalated. He tells Subhash that he has married a young woman Gauri, shocking their parents--and Subhash--by not waiting for his parents to choose a bride. Then horrifying news arrives in Rhode Island--Udayan has been killed by the police. Subhash rushes home, where he find Gauri pregnant and his mother forcing her to live a very constricted widow's life. He decides to marry Gauri to save her from what looks like a dreadful future and give Udayan's daughter a father.

The central portion of the novel is about the little family created by Subhash, Gauri, and their daughter Bela--and a sad story it is. Gauri, haunted by her memories of Udayan (and, we learn later, of some of the movement activities in which they participated back in Calcutta), is unable to connect with either her husband or her daughter. Indeed, the descriptions of her parenting and the isolation of the three characters are painful.

Near the end, Lahiri takes Subhash back to India for a revelatory visit, lets Subhash find happiness, and gives Udayan the last chapter, the story of his death.

The Lowland is written in the third person, from the perspectives primarily of Subhash, Gauri, and Bela--Subhash and Udayan's mother gets a short section and Udayan the previously mentioned last chapter. The book is rather slow-paced and, perhaps because the characters are so reserved and isolated or perhaps because Lahiri keeps them so firmly in their heads in a way I can't really explain,  the reader feels at a distance from the action. We're studying them, not sharing their experience. It didn't keep me from admiring the book--I did--but it did keep me from empathizing with the characters (even Bela doesn't demand the sympathy she deserves).

The Lowland was, to me, a terribly sad book about how the effects of  anger, betrayal, guilt, and secrets only multiply as time passes. It's not likely to be my best book of 2013, but it is a good book.

Favorite passages:
Isolation offered its own form of companionship: the reliable silence of her rooms, the steadfast tranquility of the evenings. The promise that she would find things where she put them, that there would be no interruption, no surprise. It greeted her at the end of each day and lay still with her at night.

Writing down call numbers with short pencils, searching up and down aisles that would turn dark when the timers on the lights expired. She recalls, visually, certain passages in the books she'd read. Which side of the book, where on the page.  [This is from a section that is essentially a paean to old-school libraries--I loved it!]

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