Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Lowland, by Jumpa Lahiri

Though Subhash is technically the older of the two brothers, he can barely remember his younger brother Udayan not being at his side. Growing up together in the outskirts of Calcutta, Udayan has always been the adventurous, brave and fun loving type, whilst Subhash has always been thoughtful, quiet and studious. Exceptionally close despite their differences, they take divergent paths in life. Subhash chooses a career in academia (out of a sense of family duty) and Udayan drifts into the new and dangerous Naxalite movement and political activism. The Lowland centres on the lives of different family members as they struggle with themes of identity, duty and unfulfilled expectations.

This book was very evocative and made me feel quite reflective. I read it in one day, such was the appeal of the sweeping, melancholy family saga. I just wanted everybody to be happy and for their conflicts to be resolved. Many characters try so hard to do the right thing, and though they have the best intentions in the world, it just doesn't always work that way. I'm sure most people can relate to that.

The language in the novel was quite unusual, but for reasons that I've struggled to identify. It's quite sparse, but it really reflects the tension and the delicacy that emerges in the story. There aren't really huge, lengthy paragraphs full of emotion or description, but these elements are not non-existent. I can see why some readers might be disappointed by this lack of poetic-ness, but I found that the prose had a sort of mysterious voiceover feel to it that was unique. It felt quite deliberate and helped greatly in creating the almost confessional style that the story adopts later on as the lives of the characters become more complex and their decisions become more difficult.

Though it is a bit of a slow starter it does not take long before the reader is absorbed in the intense relationship between two very different brothers. The story certainly gathers pace once the young brothers decide upon their separate futures- the narrative switches back and forth between India and the US so the reader can keep tabs on each sibling. Whilst Subhash tries to stay as close as possible to traditional values, what he thinks will make his parents proud, he ends up alienating them much more than his charismatic, rebellious brother by moving to America to pursue a PhD. Udayan feels less obliged to follow the path wished for by his parents, falling in with a dangerous revolutionary faction. Though his parents are blind to his rash behaviour, refusing to believe that he is treading a destructive path- they still appear to prefer him over his dutiful brother.

Lahiri’s characters are so expertly crafted, and full of shifting thoughts and complexity. They really did feel real- flawed and desperate in some cases, and full of love and good intentions in others. Always conflicted. Thought the plot spans three generations The Lowlands has a relatively small circle of characters. The novel is full of sadness and disappointment and is really quite haunting. Misguided but well-meaning decisions, selfish decisions and genuine mistakes lose their distinctions as the effects are the same. Choices made a long time ago can have huge, unknowable effects on the lives of others, even years later and the ways in which family members can still pull and break one another from continents away is very clear throughout.

Overall, an evocative, sombre novel about the various ways that families can pull themselves apart. Beautifully written (though sparse in choice of language) with excellent, tragic characters with a great deal of strength and resolve.

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