Book review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

OB-ZB616_ijhump_DV_20130927053103A melancholic tale narrated with restraint and distance. Seeing how the tone was set in the beginning, I didn’t expect to be drawn in to the story, wasn’t sure what to expect.

But call her (Lahiri) the plot whisperer.

Here, time will fascinate you, moving abruptly, standing still, spanning generations and decades–yet still managing to stay organic to the plot. The plot and story have so many intricacies that it is time which directs it all.

Picture two young boys growing up in the 1960s amid the lowland of Calcutta, getting into mischief that suits boys their age. In the background, picture the remnants of the partition of India which led to the division of the Bengal province; picture the infamousNaxalite movement in India (communism; Maoist ideology, Marxist-Leninst politics). Picture one brother being headstrong and the other more conscientious. Picture yourself embracing their closeness at the beginning while also being uncomfortably aware of subtle hints from the third-person narrator that something is about to put a wedge between this brotherhood.

Now fast forward.

See them grow older; meet a bookish young wife who, even in the midst of conservative society, has feminist ideals and crude ambition.
See an obstinate and cruel mother-in-law.
See a marriage made in love and another conceived for convenience.
See the wetlands of a Calcutta neighborhood contrasted with the coast of Rhode Island.
See intellectualism battle civil unrest.
See the living suffer, watch the dead live.
See the ugliness of post traumatic stress disorder.
See one mother live with anguish, see another live with ambivalence.
See your skin crawl from a mother’s abandonment.
See what it means to live a life of exile.
See what happens when people refuse to reconcile the past.
See the ghost who ruins.
See happiness intertwined with misery and agony.
See how people can be raised the same, yet lead different lives.

You read some books and through gestures, symbolism and impeccable details, they subtlety teach you things you never knew.

This novel has the sophistication of a political novel. I hate to even do this comparison, but close your eyes, and you would think that it was a male author writing about male characters. Told from the third-person narrator point of view, the tone embodies the coping mechanism of the characters: stoicism–just what is needed to accompany a heartrending story without the melodramatics. At times the narration is so distant, it is as if only the storyteller is present (which, by the way, the storytelling here is stupendous). Then just at the right moment, the narration gets closer, so close that you and the character become one, you see their point of view clearly and you may not agree with them but you certainly ‘get’ them.

I love when I sense characters, when the plot doesn’t stray but goes forward with such purpose that all I can do is follow to hear what happens next, learn what I’m supposed to learn. Love when I start to feel sorry for characters, wondering why they all end up so miserable, and then I learn that…wait…I’m wrong because in the end, they all don’t end up in misery–though for some it is a long time coming. 

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