Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 25, 2014

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

The LowlandI read The Lowland in a day, but it was a duty to finish it, not a pleasure.

Legions of Lahiri’s fans will be very cross with me, but I found this book dreary, leaden and ultimately implausible.   It’s just another mournful relationship novel, dipped into Bengali culture just long enough to leave a faded impression of exoticism like tie-dying that’s been washed too much.

The plot is feeble.  Born in Calcutta into a middle-class household in the 1960s brothers Subhash and Udayan are very close, but *surprise, surprise!* have different personalities.  Udayan is the lively risk-taker; Subhash is more restrained.   Yes, he feels a bit inadequate.  No, you don’t get to know what Udayan feels, except that he is outraged by the inequities of Indian life.

Both boys work hard, and do well at school and university. Subhash goes off to do post-graduate work in America, and Udayan joins a Maoist terrorist group called the Naxalites.

Beware: Spoilers

Like Udayan’s childhood adventures (which only someone brought up by helicopter parents in the US would think were exciting) his adult activities are rather lame.  He belongs to a group involved in some very nasty atrocities, but sanitised to keep reader sympathy, he’s on the sidelines.  Still, that’s enough under Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, and he is bumped off by the security forces and everybody is very shocked and sad.  This includes his girlfriend Gauri who is pregnant, so Sudhash (who’s come home to mourn his brother) defies Bengali expectations about arranged marriages and proper weddings, ties the knot in a civil ceremony and takes her back to America.  (Hmm. The CIA  must have been slacking off, letting the brother and wife of a communist sympathiser flit in and out of the US, defying US Cold War paranoia).

Gauri whips off her sari, gets into sweaters and jeans, and plunges into academic life as a philosopher.  Udayan’s daughter Bela, when she is born, is loved by Subhash, not by Gauri.  Subhash tries very hard to make the marriage work, but Gauri isolates herself in the house, determined to wallow in her tragedy for the rest of her life.  She gets what she wants.  When Subhash and little Bela go home to Calcutta to mourn the death of his father, she takes the opportunity to leave, address unknown, so some might say she gets what she deserves.  (Yes, yes, I know, she might have had post-natal depression, but Lahiri doesn’t invoke it.)

Poor old Subhash gets a raw deal in this book.  Heroically, he devotes himself to Bela but she takes revenge for her mother abandoning her by abandoning her father, living as a nomad, flitting in and out of his life just often enough for him to know that she’s alive.  The emotional detachment of all these characters is relentless.  Everybody is very unhappy in this book, and so was I wasting my time reading it.

It could, after all, have been a really interesting book.

I am not alone in having doubts about The Lowland.  Reviewing the Booker Longlist in The Spectator, Philip Henshaw dismissed it like this:

 Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is not bad in its American-airport-bestseller style, but it is extraordinarily remote and superficial in the Calcutta parts of its story, and springs to observant life only in the American sections.

Well, I haven’t been to either the US or India yet so I can’t comment on what he called the novel’s observational patchiness but the settings seem like Suburban Anywhere and the style is American Creative Writing School.

But…

It was nominated for the 2013 Booker; the 2013 National Book Award; the 2013 Women’s prize for Fiction (the former Orange Prize); and now the DSC Prize for South Asian Fiction.  Clearly I am out-of-step with world opinion about this book, so don’t take any notice of me.

Other reviews

PS My next two books for the DSC shortlist are

  • Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera
  • The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer

 

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Title: The Lowland
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2013
ISBN: 9781408844557
Source: Kingston Library

Availability

Fishpond: The Lowland


Responses

  1. Basically I agree with you about the book. The Indian sections seemed the result of research and tourism. The U.S. parts seemed closer to lived experience. I found details of Bengali family life interesting

    • Oh dear, I’m no Pollyanna, but I hope that US life is not as dreary and hopeless as tis book makes out.
      It was *such* a contrast to The Mirror of Beauty!

  2. I haven’t read this book, but I love your honesty and willingness to go against popular opinion. I enjoyed Lahiri’s short stories some years ago, ‘Unaccustomed Earth’, but didn’t like the sound of ‘The Lowland’. Life’s too short to spend on books you don’t enjoy!

    • Thank you, Anna, that’s lovely:)

  3. I have the hardcover of this, ordered in expectation of it being longlisted for Giller Prize in 2013, but it didnt get nominated and it’s been sitting on my shelf unread for 18 months now. Your review certainly doesn’t make me want to pull it down for a read any time soon. Lol.

    • You mean she’s Canadian too?

      • Um, I thought so for some reason but having scoured the internet I can’t see any reference to Canadian citizenship, so now I’m wondering where I got this notion and who I might have her mixed up with.

        • Oh, who can keep track these days anyway? People have dual citizenship, and academic writers like this one have global postings here there and everywhere.
          But before I looked up her bio, I had her tagged as a American. You can pick that middle-American style of writing anywhere.

    • She doesn’t have Canadian citizenship, although she does have U.S. because she won the Pulitzer a few years back.

      Like Kim, I’ve had the book on the shelf by my reading chair for more than a year — and whenever I felt I should finally try it, I always found another volume more interesting. This review has convinced me to finally send it off into the basement shelves.

      • LOL Kevin, you have a sort of Black Hole Punishment Cell for books you don’t like?

  4. I read The Lowland because I have enjoyed Lahiri’s other books. Like you, I was disappointed but am somewhat less negative in my reactions. The characters seemed like people with limited emotional lives, “one note” per person. Some of the U.S. sections were good as social commentary and perhaps the emotional detachment is more a criticism of America than of India.

    • Yes, it’s that ‘one-note’ single-minded misery sustained throughout their lives that exasperated me. I have known so many people who have suffered terrible tragedy but rebuilt their lives while still paying respect to what they had lost – well, it just seemed maudlin to me.

  5. […] from the ANZ Lit blog has reviews of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi‘s The Mirror of Beauty and Jhumpa Lahiri‘s The […]

  6. I found this novel really hard work too. The comments akin to ‘Creative Writing 101’ are true now that i think about it! The ‘tortured’ characters reminded me of YA novels where the main character is set apart from society due as a victim of circumstances beyond their control. Anyway, here is my review – http://orangepekoereviews.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/mostly-a-bleak-grind-the-lowland/

    • Thanks for the link, and yes, I think you are right about the YA preoccupation. As you say in your review, what works for YA doesn’t work for adult novels where we expect a more mature way of looking at the world.

  7. Wow! You read this in a day! I could just about do that if I was really interested in it but not if I wasn’t. I recently struggled with ‘Sense and Sensibility’, which is about the same length, and it took nearly eight days to read…I was surprised myself that it took so long.

    • Oh, I’m most often like you, finding all sorts of things to do except read something I don’t like.
      But sometimes it’s a case of getting it out of the way so that I can get on and read something else. Of course, truth be told, I wouldn’t have finished this one at all if it hadn’t been shortlisted and had to be read for the Shadow Jury.
      I am now having a very happy time reading The Belly of Paris. I want my last book of the year to be a good one!

      • Well, you can’t go wrong with Zola! I think that should be my motto. :-)

  8. I haven’t read this one because when I read the blurb I thought,”it’s the same book”. She seems to me one of those writers who does the same thing over and over with slight variations – basically the India-America recipe, and I think your comment about Creative Writing School is spot on.

    • The thing is, it’s hard enough to write about childhood anyway, without having to try to imagine a childhood in a place you don’t know well. If you’ve grown up somewhere safe, you don’t know that low-level anxiety that permeates your childhood despite your parents trying to protect you from unpleasant facts about what’s going on in the world you live in. And so you might think that sneaking into a golf course (which the two Indian boys do) is a Big Deal because you don’t realise that kids take much bigger risks than this to test themselves, to find out if they will be brave enough if they need to be.
      These Indian kids were living in a country that had undergone enormous change with the departure of the Raj, and then the horror of Partition, and then a communist insurgency, but although these things are mentioned, there’s hardly any sense of what that was like for the children, or their friends or their extended family or their neighbours. They seem more like a stereotypical US nuclear family,..

      • Well, she is American from babyhood, I think. So as you say even though she is the child of Indian immigrants,she hasn’t experienced childhood in India, let alone an underprivileged childhood. The Indian-ness almost becomes a writerly commodity.

        • Spot on, a commodity that’s used to make her work stand out from the rest.

  9. I read The Lowland and enjoyed it, despite the mournfulness of the story. I agree that the characters are a bit light on, and all seemed to be on the cold side. However, Gauri is an intriguing character and her actions kept my interest in the story.

    • I agree that she’s the most interesting character in the story. But there is too much missing, she’s not developed enough, she’s too one-dimensional.
      Her character would be much better if we knew what there was in her background to make her ditch conventional Indian traditions and marry Udayan the way she did, and if we knew why she never moved on, and why she preferred the abstract world of letters rather than her own child (not that the two are mutually exclusive anyway). The guilt factor, explained very late in the book, is too undeveloped: even in everyday situations many people do dreadful things that they are (quite rightly) very ashamed of (e.g. being at fault in a fatal car accident) but most of them don’t shut out the rest of the world for the rest of their lives over it. For those that don’t learn to forgive themselves with time, there is a reason somewhere in their backgrounds, but this was never shown in Gauri’s story. Udayan was never shown as being charismatic enough to have been such an influence on her, and we never really saw her struggling with her feelings about what he did.
      A book that showed a woman conflicted over her love for an idealistic man doing evil things would be a much more engaging and certainly much more relevant book to read. How often do we see ‘The Woman Behind the Wicked Man’ on TV and think, how could she be in love with a man like that? How does she reconcile what he does, with her ordinary feelings about humanity?

  10. I read the first few pages of this earlier in the year and decided it was not for me. Your review confirms my decision.

    • That’s interesting…. how many pages do you give a book before you abandon it? I usually allow 50….

      • I usually give a book between 50 to 100 pages. How long I give a book depends on my mood and how many other books I have lined up to read (which is usually a lot). If I am not enjoying a book I will often go back to the review which sparked my interest and make a decision about whether to abandon the book after rereading the review.

        • I know what you mean – I like those reviews that warn you that the book takes a while to get going but it’s worth it – as long as they are right about that!

  11. I read her book of short stories The interpreter of maladies and liked it pretty much. I then read her The namesake and found it an interesting story about immigrants/multiculturalism/first and second generation issues. But, neither of these books put her on the “I really must read her” list so I haven’t put The lowland on my virtual TBR (let alone real one) despite the various listings. While you and I don’t always agree on books, I’m going to take your advice on this one (unless something weird happens and my reading group decides down the track to do it!!) :-)

    • I’m not keen on short stories as you know, though I did borrow her collection and read a few of them just to see what the fuss was about.

      I’m just wondering, because you’re more in touch with American culture than I am … you know how the Brits have had an identifiable Anglo-Indian writing tradition for years now, (Salman Rushie, V S Naipaul et al) … has there been something similar in the US and I’ve missed it? By that I mean, writing by expat or immigrant people from South Asia (Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India etc)
      Or is it that Lahiri is the first of a wave of US-Indian writers, doing something that is new, perhaps seems exotic, for them? Like the wave of US-Middle Eastern writers who fled Iraq, Iran etc and then began writing from the US? (The Kite Runner, Reading Lolita in Teheran etc).

      • That’s a good question and off the top of my head I can’t think of an Indian tradition in the USA. I can think of more subcontinent people who’ve gone to Canada like Rohinton Mistry, and Michael Ondaatje. I can think, as I’m sure you can, of Chinese American writers too – like Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ha Jin – but nope, not much Indian. But I’m not as up to date as I used to be so don’t quote me.

  12. Good observation about the Anglo-Indian writers. There are several I have enjoyed who seem to have very mixed national connections. How about Rohinton Mistry — Canadian, I think. And another writer named Desai (can’t remember other name) and now there are Chinese writers who have come to the U.S., some of whom are now writing in English.

    I think they take their prose styles more from their literary experiences than from direct interaction with the to-them foreign culture, but their observations are sometimes very keen.

    • Oh yes, done well, it’s brilliant. My favourite is Small Island by Andrea Levy. Her witty observations had sharp barbs, but her affection for both homelands is obvious all the same.
      Here in Australia we have Ouyang Yu from China. His output is very varied, but I’ve really liked some of his books, especially The English Class.

  13. I’ve read The Namesake and the interpreter of Maladies and loved them both. I couldn’t wait to get this new one. I like to read them before the reviews but I wish I had waited. I was so disappointed with it – mainly because of my lack of empathy with the characters and the way none of them seemed able to change at all. It was one long dreary journey. Perhaps she needs to change her focus on mainly Indian/American stories?

    • Hello Bernadette, thank you for taking the time to comment:)
      Don’t you hate it when an author you love lets you down?! It doesn’t happen often, but it’s awful when it does: that happy sense of anticipation because you think you’re going to love the book – and then the disappointment creeps in.
      I remember reading something once about Louis de Bernieres who said that winning a major prize (Lahiri won the Pultizer) can be a real problem for a writer, because there’s an expectation from the public and the publisher that the writer will do lots of author tours and festivals and write short pieces for magazines and so on, and they are pressured by the publisher to produce another one of course – and that means they don’t get time to think and reflect and write another good one. I suspect also that editors might not be brave enough to tell a very successful author that the new book isn’t up to scratch.

  14. The plot sounds really interesting, but I agree I think The Namesake will be the only Lahiri I’ll read! The Lowlands seems to share the same unhappiness and difficult family relationships that dominated The Namesake…


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: