The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Two brothers, one decision and decades of repercussions. A slow starter that opens out to a panoramic tale encompassing four generations and two continents and an important era in recent Indian history. Powerful and affecting stuff.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: September 2013
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 978-1408828113

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Shortlisted for Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2014

Subhash and Udayan Mitra are brothers growing up in an India growing into its post-independence status. Subhash goes along with Udayan's ideas but it's Udayan who's the radical, fighting against the injustices of an elitism that remains once the British have left India. Eventually they go their separate ways, one studying abroad to avoid conflict and the other becoming more deeply embroiled. Life can't go on like this forever and it doesn't but the reverberations seem to, affecting generation after generation as Subhash realises that the search for peace isn't always an external thing.

Here Jhumpa Lahiri revisits the theme exploring what it's like to be Indian while living in an alien country as she divides the action mainly between the sub-continent and the US. This theme originates from her own life, having been born in London, before moving to Calcutta and again to America with her family. Her fascination with people whose existence is shaped by unsettlement has already provided her with a mantelpiece of awards including the 2000 fiction Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies and now The Lowland has a well-justified 2013 Booker Man nomination.

I must admit to reading the first half of the novel in shock. I was an annoyingly precocious child in the 1960s and 70s (I remember being the only child who was vehemently anti-Vietnam war in my infants' school!) but I'm ashamed to say that up to the day when I started Jhumpa's novel I knew nothing about the struggles that led to the Indian 'Emergency' and resulting state censorship. As with all history we must listen to many voices in order to see the whole picture but through the brothers' eyes we're introduced to a brutal world where the government forces' response seem born of fear if we're being kind and sadism if we're not rather than reasoning and justice.

We're drawn in slowly to what is a compulsive, powerful book as the lads make choices that will affect more than just their futures. Indeed as the story goes on it slips further and further into tragedy, but the sort that engenders sympathy rather than an urge to stop reading as the twists and surprises gradually seep into our consciousness and cause the novel's pages to take on the qualities of superglue.

Also as we read on, the India and the parents that Subhash has left behind are revealed beyond our initial hasty judgement. We marvel at the rich customs while flinching at the day-to-day obstacles and then, by the end of the book, Mr and Mrs Mitra are people rather than annoying would-be-influences for their children to circumnavigate. In fact, once we understand Mrs M, we can forgive her actions even if we can't forget.

This is no brash, broad stroke novel; each person becomes someone we know and for whom we hope. It's also a deceptive story. We start out thinking we can walk away untouched afterwards and yet, now, as I write this over a week later, events still surface in my memory not only daring me to re-read the novel but to also read Jhumpa's back catalogue. I don't usually accept dares however this time I'd be daft not to.

If you enjoyed this and would like to delve further into superlative Indian literature, we heartily recommend The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.

Booklists.jpg The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri is in the Man Booker Prize 2013.

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