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Book 116: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Book 116: The Lowland.
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri, 2013.
Genre: Period Fiction/Contemporary. Politics. Racial Issues. India/USA.
Other Details: Hardback. 340 pages.

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.

As the two brothers grow older their lives, once so united, begin to diverge. It is 1967. Charismatic and impulsive, Udayan becomes increasingly drawn to the Communist movement sweeping West Bengal, the Naxalite cause. As revolution seizes the city’s student community and exams are boycotted in a shadow of Paris and Berkeley, their home is dominated by the absence of Udayan, out on the streets at demonstrations. Subhash wins a place on a PhD programme in the United States and moves to Rhode Island, never to live in India again – yet his life will be shaped from afar by his brother’s acts of passionate political idealism. Udayan will give everything 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. The repercussions of his actions will link their fates irrevocably and tragically together, reverberating across continents and seeping through the generations that follow.
- synopsis from Mann Booker Prize website.

This novel deals with a number of powerful themes such as the interaction between the personal and political, with each brother taking a different stance, and the immigrant experience during the late 20th Century experienced by Subhash, who leaves India to live in the USA albeit in the rarefied atmosphere of academia. As it covers five decades of Indian and American history and is of modest length, it proved more of a series of snapshots especially in the later sections as years flashed by.

Although I enjoyed the novel and found it accessible there were times when I found Jhumpa Lahiri's writing and the characters rather flat. This comment did raise some laughter at the Shadowing Group meeting where we discussed the short listed novels though I didn't intend the pun. I did wonder whether the coolness of her approach was intentional in terms of emphasising the disconnectedness of the characters from one another as well as feeling cut off from their cultural heritages. I did feel that I gained knowledge of an aspect of Indian history previously unknown to me as I had no idea that there had been a political movement inspired by Chinese Communism there.

Overall, I found it a deeply bitter-sweet tale and certainly one worthy of the accolades it had received.
Tags: family saga, indian lit, period fiction (20th century), politics, race
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