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Book Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (4/5)

24 Sep

After my book club read another Lahiri book, I knew I needed to pick up her other full-length novel, The Lowland. I picked up a used copy though I can’t remember where. I finally got to this book on audio, making time to squeeze it into a busy summer. It was great for long runs in the beautiful weather.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Other books by Lahiri reviewed on this blog:

The Namesake (and book club reflection and movie review)

Summary from Goodreads:

From Subhash’s earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. In the suburban streets of Calcutta where they wandered before dusk and in the hyacinth-strewn ponds where they played for hours on end, Udayan was always in his older brother’s sight. So close in age, they were inseparable in childhood and yet, as the years pass – as U.S tanks roll into Vietnam and riots sweep across India – their brotherly bond can do nothing to forestall the tragedy that will upend their lives.

Udayan- charismatic and impulsive- finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty. He will give everything, risk all, for what he believes, and in doing so will transform the futures of those dearest to him: his newly married, pregnant wife, his brother and their parents. For all of them, the repercussions of his actions will reverberate across continents and seep through the generations that follow.

For me, this book was at its best in the middle. I got dragged down at the beginning by all of the politics. It was a lot to take in for a short time and I could tell it was important to the plot but that it wasn’t going to be crucial. I was more focused on the relationship between the brothers. From my other Lahiri reading, I knew she was great at describing relationships between people and making you care about her characters. I could see that part of the book coming and, for me, it didn’t come fast enough at the beginning. I also disliked the very end, revisiting Udayan. I saw him as a past part of the book that was no longer the unifying thread of the book. To me, that had become Bela. It could have been cut and given the book a stronger ending.

I thought Subhash and Gauri were great characters. They were strong enough to hold up the book even when I felt Udayan and Bela failed. Subhash was motivated by duty and he felt a duty to serve many people in his life. Gauri wasn’t given a lot of decisions in her life and tried to make the best of situations she disliked and was uncomfortable in. Eventually, it was too much and it’s up to the reader to decide if they agree with her decision or not. I think the ambiguity of it proves that this book was well written.

Subhash was my favorite character. He was reliable when everyone around him was fleeting and unsure. He was a rock in the book that the plot could focus on and the readers could count on to tell the story. Even before you find out how emotionally driven the other characters are, Subhash presents himself as the one to watch, even when he’s a small kid.

There weren’t characters in this book I related to well but I was still able to enjoy it. One of the things I enjoyed was reading about Indian characters and how they felt in America and how American culture was different for them. It helped me learn about what some of my Indian-born coworkers might be going through.

Image via The Telegraph

Bela’s adulthood was really interesting to read about. It seemed like such a drastic change at first, for her to go from the only child of a single father to a nomad but Lahiri built into it well and reinforced the decision as she became a mother herself. I didn’t like the direction of the character at first but I grew to really like Bela’s character toward the end.

Gauri was really hard to like. Visiting her after she’d been in California several years made me angry. I didn’t agree with her decision and what she did to Bela so I was secretly hoping she was unsuccessful and unhappy. Oh well. I actively tried not to be happy for her and her success. I was very bitter.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Sunil Malhotra. He was amazing. I really enjoyed his accents and voices for the various characters and the solemn approach he took to a very serious book. I hope he continues to narrate books by Indian-American or Indian-British writers because I’d love to hear more from him.

I felt the title of this book was just a bit misleading. It refers to a place where Subhash and Udayan would play together in childhood. It takes on a deep significance for them both when they’re adults (trying not to spoil everything!) and the book returns there for its conclusion. However, the majority of the book takes place in Rhode Island. It felt weird to tie the book to a location in India which had only passing appearances in the book. I felt there could have been something else that would have been less miss-leading that Lahiri could have chosen for a title.

The book focused on the relationship and sense of duty shared by Subhash, Gauri, and Udayan and the ways their lives intersected. I loved how I was always thinking about the three of them and all of the ‘what if’ situations through the whole book. It was well tied in and you never forgot the ones that were not present.

Writer’s Takeaway: Lahiri’s not afraid to make her characters suffer. There always seemed to be something going wrong in their lives, yet they’re very resilient. I sickly enjoy the melancholy and the beautiful moments of clarity and happiness that the characters get. It contrasted well.

I liked this book and I’ll read another Lahiri novel if she decides to give another to the world. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri | Cloud & Leaf Bookstore
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“The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri | Belper Book Chat