Posted in Book Reviews

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

lowlandBrothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra were born in a small neighborhood of Calcutta in the early 1940s. Subhash, older by fifteen months, is quiet, cautious, responsible. Udayan is reckless and outspoken. Despite their differences, the boys are inseparable. But as they grow up, they grow apart. Subhash, a serious student, moves to Rhode Island to study science at a university there, while Udayan, passionately political, stays in India, where he becomes enmeshed in the Naxalite movement and marries fellow student Gauri.

India in the 1940s was still a British colony, where native people were forcibly separated from wealthy English expats. But in the following decades, India broke free of the empire only to find itself convulsed with violent factional uprisings, which began in the ‘60s and continue to the present day. (This is history which few Americans know well—not surprisingly. One of the characters, relocated to the States, notes that the evening news says nothing about political unrest in India.)

But while Indian history is the ground from which the brothers’ story grows, The Lowland is not primarily a book about Indian history, but about how personal history can be rooted in national history, and how one action, one decision, or one experience can reverberate through a life in unforeseeable ways.

Lahiri has a dazzling impressionistic style. Layering phrase upon phrase, she paints a portrait or a setting with a few precise strokes. She tells the stories of Subhash and Udayan and their family through a shifting third-person perspective, gradually unveiling each character’s secrets.  A luminous, absorbing book, The Lowland was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

—Diane

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