‘The Lowland’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

‘The Lowland’  by Jhumpa Lahiri  (2013) – 340 pages

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The main character in Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel “The Lowland”, Subhash Mitra, is a master of restraint.  His brother Udayan is appalled by the grinding poverty and the near starvation of a large number of people around their home in Calcutta, India.  When a peasants’ revolt breaks out in the town of Naxalbari, and the police open fire on an unarmed group of peasants killing nine adults and two children in 1967, college student Udayan like many others decides to become an underground revolutionary.  Subhash wants no part of this.  He heads off to the United States to attend college in Rhode Island.

While reading about Subhash in “The Lowland”, I kept thinking of the title of Graham Greene’s autobiography, “A Sort of Life”.  That is the passive kind of life Subhash Mitra leads.  He gets married without even a minimum of love between husband and wife.  There’s a baby daughter, but it is not his.  He is attracted to the natural surroundings of the Rhode Island area, and he takes long walks by himself.  He seems to do quite well on his jobs in the academic/scientific community.  He stays in the same house in Rhode Island for nearly fifty years.

I above called Subhash a master of restraint, but the true master of restraint here is Jhumpa Lahiri.  She has her readers following this seemingly dull person through 70 years while not much at all happens. 

Soon after I started “The Lowland”, I read two reviews of the novel, the somewhat negative review in the Washington Post by Ron Charles (“At times Gauri sounds like a character from a particularly dour Anita Brookner novel.”)  and the almost totally negative review by Porochista Khakpour in the Los Angeles Times (“Lines like these read like a parody of contemporary transnational literature at best.”).   Jhumpa Lahiri has truly arrived on the literary scene to get reviews this negative.   I can see their point to some extent; sometimes it felt like work plowing through these pages.  Yet her writing sustains our attention.  The effect is cumulative, and by the end of the novel you will be moved by this story of an uninteresting man.  Perhaps most of us lead a sort of life rather than a real life.  Maybe the most courageous are those who quietly continue on. 

In the novel, we check in with Subhash and his family every few years.  I probably would have preferred a more compressed timeframe, because these check-ins sometimes seemed distant and uninvolving.   

What is my overall opinion of “The Lowland”?  It is a well-written novel, and many of the scenes are intense and affecting.  I’ve read other novels before about characters who don’t quite connect in their personal lives, and this one is handled in fine fashion.  This is a novel where the sum is much greater than its parts.  However a few of these individual parts moved too slowly for me.

“The Lowland” is up for both the Man-Booker and the United States National Book Award, the first novel ever selected on the lists for both awards.  I would say it is good enough for the shortlists for both awards, but I don’t see it as a winner of either award.

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