Sometimes it’s good to be forced to do things you don’t want to do. You can surprise yourself with what you end up enjoying. I was finishing The Lowland today, minding my own business on the sofa, when my brother and his girlfriend turned up. ‘That doesn’t look like your sort of book,’ my brother’s girlfriend said. ‘No’ I said. ‘But I really like it anyway.’ And if I had the gift of brevity, that would be my review. But I don’t. So I shall go on to tell you more about it. As I said in a previous post, I am running a Booker Prize shadowing group at school, and part of the deal is that you have to read two of the shortlisted books. I have to set an example, and so, despite not massively enjoying modern novels or those set in different cultures to my own, I took one for the team and jumped in with The Lowland. I thought it was going to be pretentiously overwritten, as many of these prizewinning sorts of books so often are, but I was surprised to find myself effortlessly drawn in from the first page. Jhumpa Lahiri knows how to spin a yarn.
This is the story of two brothers, Udayan and Subhash, and the woman they both marry, Gauri. The story opens in the heat drenched suburbs of Calcutta, where the inseparable Udayan and Subhash grow up in the shadows of colonial architecture, dreaming of living in the world of luxury that exists behind the walls of The Tolly Club, a local English member’s only outfit where golf is played and women in white dresses drink lemonade on the veranda. The juxtaposition of such wealth and the poverty of the streets outside angers both boys, but it will be Udayan who will go on to channel his anger into politics, while Subhash, always quieter and more submissive, channels his energies into science. At university in the 1960s, Udayan becomes interested in the teachings of Mao, and joins the Communist party. He gets swept up into the Naxalite movement, a Maoist leaning group of anarchists who gathered up thousands of recruits amongst India’s universities. Subhash, growing away from his brother, disapproving of his violent politics, accepts a scholarship to study in America, turning his back on India for a chance to experience life in a different world.
Subhash arrives in the sparse, salty climate of Rhode Island and finds that American life suits him. He marvels at the furious seas and the freezing winters. He enjoys shopping in the supermarkets and watching the TV. He meets an American woman. India becomes increasingly distant, made even more so by the brief, cheery letters from Udayan that he knows are hiding something. One day Udayan writes that he has married; a girl named Gauri, from Calcutta, a stranger to Subhash. Feeling replaced, unwanted, the gulf between Udayan and Subhash, once so close, grows stronger. Udayan tells Subhash nothing of what is really happening in his life; his involvement in the Naxalite movement, an unspoken taboo between them, is conspicuously omitted from his letters. Subhash only becomes aware of what his brother has been doing when a telegram arrives. Udayan has been killed. His brief return to Calcutta will transform his life. He meets Gauri, and falls in love with her. But can he make a life with her, haunted by the memory of the brother they both loved?
This is a remarkable, rich, complex novel exploring two lives across half a century and two continents. Binding these lives together is the ever present spectre of Udayan, whose existence is the reason for their connection, and their distance. Gauri and Subhash will cope in different ways, and as the years progress, their lives prove to take surprisingly divergent paths. Their decisions are compelling, their challenges, regrets and pleasures emotionally absorbing. Weaved within the narrative is a beautifully atmospheric depiction of a changing India, paralleled with a rapidly developing small town America, posing questions about our connections to landscapes and the power they have over our emotions. Much to my delight, I found this a powerful, gripping and incredibly moving story, written with stylish eloquence. The characters and their fates will certainly stay with me for quite a while. I can’t recommend it heartily enough; even if this sort of novel isn’t normally your cup of tea, I encourage you to take a leap and give it a try. You might just be surprised at what you find.