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4.4 out of 5 stars
The Lowland
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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 February 2014
Subhash and Udayan are brothers, growing up together in post-independence Calcutta. Subhash is conventional and studious, fully intending to follow the path expected for him by his parents. Udayan is more adventurous and becomes politicised after the brutal suppression of a communist uprising in the small village of Naxalbari. Udayan soon becomes a member of the Naxalites, an offshoot of the Communist Party, which believes in direct action - i.e. terrorism - to achieve its ends. Subhash meantime takes up an opportunity to go to the States to continue his studies in oceanography.

This is where Lahiri makes her first strange choice. Instead of remaining in Calcutta with the charismatic and interesting Udayan, learning more about the Naxalites and the political situation, we are whisked off with the frankly dull-to-the-point-of-catatonia Subhash, and given detailed accounts of the considerably less exciting environment of the campus of a University in Rhode Island, where the most thrilling thing that happens is that Subhash decides not to get involved in Vietnam protests. From there on, we only learn what is happening in India through the occasional letter that Udayan sends, until an incident occurs that makes Subhash return briefly - but only long enough to marry, when he and his new wife return to Rhode Island. The bulk of the remainder of the book is taken up with detailed minutiae about the extremely dull and miserable lives led by Subhash, Gauri and their daughter, Bela. Subhash and Gauri both spend their lives studying and then teaching in Universities so we rarely get off campus and, after an entertaining start, Bela turns into as dull and misery-laden a character as her parents.

I suspect the aim of the book is three-fold: to show the sense of displacement felt by immigrants, to examine the effect of a violent incident on the futures of those affected by it and to look at the moral questions surrounding the use of terrorism as a political tool. The blurb describes it as 'epic', 'achingly poignant' and 'exquisitely empathetic'. It is epic in the sense that it covers a period of 50 years, but geographically and emotionally it remains static for most of that time. The other claims, I'm afraid, would depend on the reader caring about the characters and sadly these characters are not written in a way that induces empathy. Lahiri's second strange choice is to make the book entirely humourless and passionless, with Subhash and Gauri perpetually wallowing in their self-created misery. Each has a successful career, but neither seems able to form real relationships - not even with each other.

The writing is completely flat, and so is the story; no passion, no light and no real dark - just greyness, like living under permanent cloud-cover. On the rare occasions that Lahiri discusses the politics of the Naxalites, she does so in a way that reads like a textbook or a Wikipedia article, which means that there is no depth or humanity to it. The old saw of 'show, don't tell' was constantly running thorough my mind at these points. The moral questions around terrorism are only discussed at the end of the book, in a very superficial and throwaway manner. The implication is that these characters were damaged by Udayan's actions, but we are given nothing to make us believe they were significantly different people before. In fact, it is very clear that Subhash in particular lacks passion and humour before the life-changing incident just as much as after.

For a plot that promises so much, the book fails to deliver. Competently written rather than beautifully, I find it hard to understand why this book was shortlisted for the Booker. If this is really one of the best books being produced in the Commonwealth, it goes some way to explaining why the Booker is being opened up to the rest of the world. But I suspect it was shortlisted for the author's reputation and the 'worthiness' of the message rather than for any real qualities of writing or story-telling. A disappointingly average read that I didn't feel gave me an adequate return on the time I invested in it.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 February 2018
The two Mitra brothers, Subhash and Udayan [15 months the younger] are born to a middle-class family in Calcutta just before partition. As teenagers, Udayan is drawn towards radical politics, in particular supporting the Maoist Naxalite insurgency in West Bengal.

Subhash, the less animated, is more concerned with his academic studies and eventually leaves home to continue his oceanographic education in Rhode Island. Whilst in America, tragedy strikes the family setting up the intertwining narratives of family links and responsibilities, emigration and radical politics that extend across the generations in America and India.

Whilst there is much to admire in this book, not least the brothers’ growing up and the gradual distances that develop between them, the author ultimately fails to address these issues in the detail required, tending to deliver her story in exquisitely crafted words that place style over substance.

Whilst the central characters, Subhash and Udayan’s wife, Gauri, are convincingly drawn as their lives develop along pathways determined by their relationships to Udayan, their characters seem to be presented in a series of static descriptions rather than evolving in a psychologically-convincing manner.

Whilst Subhash is in America, Udayan’s political activities bring him to the attention of the police who raid his home and threaten his family. Gauri knows that in the event of a raid, her husband would hide ‘behind the water hyacinth, in the flood water of the Lowland’, a place where the brothers used to play as children. Lahiri evocatively describes the changes to this area that occur over the period of the novel.

When Udayan emerges from the Lowlands to save his family he is taken away and shot, but his body is never returned for burial. When Subhash returns to Calcutta he finds his family shattered and Gauri pregnant with a baby, Bela, who is raised in America as Subhash’s own.

An unresolved difficulty is that Udayan, whom we learn about mainly from the memories of his wife and brother, is the most compelling character and his death leaves an emotional void that subverts the remainder of the story. Despite the quality of Lahiri’s prose, or perhaps because of it, the inconclusive nature of the latter part of this long book becomes only too evident. Characters whose emotions were protected from outside examination now wither away into bitterness and introspection.

Lahiri is very good at describing the flood of conflicting emotions that Subhash feels on returning home. This complex scene-setting should have been an opportunity to examine how individuals are affected by ageing and parenthood but sadly this does not occur. Whilst we expect that the characters’ guilt and emotional fragility would render them prone to introspection, despair, jealousy and bitterness, the lack of any effective resolution leaves the story to meander to an unsatisfactory conclusion.

The tensions in the ways that Subhash and Gauri, both well-educated professionals, adjust to life in Rhode Island are nicely contrasted [although adding little to what has been written about this by many other authors]. The relationship between self-centred mother and child is very complex and ultimately frightening. The spirit of the dead brother hangs over the latter half of the story.

Broad concerns about the environment, freedom, duty and sacrifice are contrasted with the emotions swirling within families and ultimately destroying them. When the author describes Subhash’s oceanographic studies or his thoughts about science she is accurate but strangely distant. Passion is absent, as if this quality had resided entirely in his brother. Guilt and blame suffuse the book, the boys’ parents blame Subhesh for leaving home and Gauri for marrying Udayan, Subhesh believes his absence led to his brother’s death whilst Bela grows up surrounded by guilt and the feeling that her mother’s withdrawal into academic philosophy is a consequence of her failure as a daughter.

A leavening of humour might have dragged this story back on course but Gauri’s vicious behavior clashes with the author’s sympathetic and understanding attitude.
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on 29 January 2015
We did Jhumpa Lahiri's short story collection Unaccustomed Earth in our book club a while ago to general approval so I was keen to read The Lowland when it was chosen. Lahiri won the Pulitzer for her first short story collection and she is clearly a very accomplished short story writer. However I question whether she has developed the technique required for a 350 page family drama/post-colonial epic.

Synopsis-wise this is the story of two brothers, their differing paths through life and the ripple effect of their decisions on those around them. The novel is divided into VIII Parts. The action takes place in both India and the USA.

Initially it is set in India at the time of the Naxalite Insurgency - this was early 1970's and they were a Maoist Group seeking radical change through violent means. We then follow one of the brothers as he moves abroad, and we are in the well-trodden (for this writer) territory of the South Asian diaspora. The sense of isolation, dislocation and of not remaining true to one's roots permeates Part II. From then on the action moves between both places right up to the present day. The wide sweep of history over the last 70 years is good.

So what are some other good points? From her experience as a short story writer she knows how to distill incident down to its essence, create tension and empathy in the reader and leave you with that feeling of recognition of a situation that is a satisfying part of the reading experience. Examples of where this works well are Part VI Chapter 1 there's a tutor/student relationship with an original twist. And a particularly effective very tightly drawn mother/daughter confrontation Part VII Chap 5 - tension builds up well to this and it has great emotional truthfulness.

But my problem with the book is that although at her best, Lahiri has an engaging writing style her characterization can be unconvincing. These are very shut-down characters emotionally and I suppose it is hard to write about emotional numbness and elicit any interest. But the net result is there is no developing momentum and it's hard to feel involvement with characters.

For example although intellectually I know that maternal disinterest might follow from the experiences Gauri has had to face I'm not convinced by the story telling. The whole section where Gauri moves to America loses pace, the relationship with Subhash lacks conviction. For me, those telling little details which make a situation outside my own experience believable are lacking - it's all very theoretical. The author has a coherent reason for the maternal disinterest but fails to flesh it out. Also the child's misconceptions about time are laboured and jarring.

And now I have gone and copied an annoying trait I found in the book! I have suddenly started naming characters without any preamble!

Another issue I have is she doesn't signpost her changes of time well and in a non-linear narrative this is vital. Darting about chronologically is disconcerting and when there is ambiguity in the time period of events it interrupts the reading flow.

This was one of those books where I ploughed on through duty but the payoff was very late in coming and I'm not sure it was sufficient for the effort of reading thus far. Essentially this is a short story writer attempting an epic novel and it has not quite come off.
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on 25 October 2014
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013; The Lowland screams of literary ambition from its first page. Having written a densely-textured, rather mournful novel, Jhumpa Lahiri eschews drama and spectacle here in favour of complex characterisation and layered meaning. I consequently found her effort easier to admire than enjoy.

We kick off in Calcutta in the mid twentieth century; an elegiac period shortly before decolonisation and the bloody struggle of Partition. Subhash and Udayan are brothers born to a middle-class family who grow up alongside the titular marshland. The novel soon follows Subhash on a scholarship to Rhode Island, distancing itself weirdly from the central events of the novel, which occur early on. It is no spoiler to say that Udayan's embroilment with India's Naxalite communist rebellion does not end well; the resulting trauma is one from which his whole family spend the rest of the novel failing to recover from.

Readers expecting an epic set against the backdrop of post-independence India will thus find themselves disappointed after The Lowland's first hundred pages or so. The rest of the novel's considerable bulk concerns itself with Subhash, Gauri, their daughter Bela, and their unhappy life in the States. Subhash's youth is portrayed as willfully dull; the tumult of the US in the 60's and 70's entirely passes him by. Instead, we are privy to the struggle of a first generation immigrant to find a place in an unfamiliar society. After he is joined by Gauri, it was with growing dismay that I realised The Lowland is a tale of domestic unhappiness; a slow accumulation of resentments and grievances, of fundamentally decent people hurting one another despite their best intentions.

Lahiri's style is measured, and moving at times. Yet her miserable characters combine with her rather sombre prose - entirely devoid of wit, passion, and even dialogue for long stretches - to create an oppressive atmosphere. The Lowland is confined in large part to the campus of Rhode Island, and - whilst Calcutta is vividly portrayed - its other sojourns from the comfort zone of Western domesticity do not convince. Depictions of Udayan's Naxalite intrigues and Bela's nomadic, freegan existence, for instance, had potential to inject life and interest into The Lowland, but are so vaguely and briefly sketched that they end up feeling tacked-on.

What one is left with is a meditation on family life and a harsh lesson in man handing on misery to man. If you are after a well-written and moving literary drama, with complex characters and a dense subtext, you could do much worse than The Lowland. If - like me - you were hoping for a livelier book with less well-charted themes, they may find The Lowland po-faced and, frankly, a little boring.
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on 12 March 2014
'Plato says the purpose of philosophy is to teach us how to die. There's nothing to learn unless we're living. In death we're equal. It has that advantage over life,' so says philosophy student Gauri who falls for idealistic, rebel Udayan. Udayan is the brother of Subhash, and as children in 1960s Calcutta, they are inseparable. But as the children grow, Udayan is drawn into a Maoist political movement, the Naxalite that tries (and ultimately fails) to take on India's post-independence government.
Like so many of those who are drawn to political causes, all Udayan can do is be in the moment and fight for his beliefs. He is too young and self-righteous to see how his actions will impact on those around him and puts his politics before his family – as so many radicalised young men do. The Lowland examines the long term impact on one ordinary family, left behind to pick up the pieces when the freedom fight is stopped in its tracks.
Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer for her short story collection, INTERPRETER OF MALADIES and THE LOWLAND is only her second novel. THE LOWLAND was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and once again revisits a familiar theme, of the sense of disconnection and alienation felt by those, in this case Bengalis, who make a new life in the West.
The story is set in Tollygunge Calcutta and Rhode Island (described in loving detail that it comes as no surprise that Lahiri grew up there). It is told from three different points of view – Subhash, Udayan's brother who chooses to leave his homeland behind and travels to America to further his career; from Gauri, the quiet, bookish girl who married Udayan, and finally from the point of view of Udayan himself.
The hardest character to fathom is Gauri as although she has moved to the West, like many migrants, she cherry picks the best of the new country, but her heart and soul remains firmly stuck in her old culture. She seems incapable of addressing her emotional problems, preferring to transfer all her passive energy into an education and an academic career while at the same time being unable to parent her daughter Bela and to take care of her emotional needs. Then there is Subhash, who chose to take Gauri with him to America to offer her a new life abroad, but whom Gauri also rejects because he is no substitute for Udayan.
At times, the story is as grey as the pebbles on those Rhode Island beaches Lahiri describes so well. And Lahiri does at least give us some hope for these characters, allowing Subhash happiness in later life and for Gauri there is a glimmer of hope that there may be some sort of redemption. It's just a shame that Gauri's philosophical beliefs were, for too long skewed towards the dying and not the living. But despite my slight irritation with Gauri, The Lowland is so beautifully written and ultimately gripping that it was hard to put down.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 December 2015
Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Lowland" (2013) is an ambitious novel set in both India and the United States over a period of 70 years, concluding with the time of the Obama Administration. The book involves three characters in a variation of a triangle theme in that two brothers are in love with and ultimately marry the same woman. The brothers, Subhash and Udayan, were born in Calcutta fifteen months apart. Udayan, the younger brother is charismatic and aggressive while Subhash is withdrawn, careful, and scholarly. Unayan becomes involved in a radical terrorist, Maoist movement, the Naxalites, in India. He marries a young, bashful woman, Gauri, without the consent of his parents in a society where parents traditionally arranged the marriages of their children. When Unayan is killed by the police, he unknowingly leaves Gauri pregnant. Subhash, who is studying oceanography in Rhode Island, marries Gauri and takes her back to live in the United States. Gauri's child, born in Rhode Island, is a baby girl, Bela. With Udayan's death early in the book, the majority of the novel is about his influence on his brother, parents, Gauri, and Bella as they try to live their lives.

It is difficult to identify the single major character in the story. Unayan, with his radicalism and his death, is the pivotal figure on which the lives of the other characters turn; but he gets relatively little space in the novel. Subhash receives a great deal of space but remains dull and a cipher. Gauri, who has been married to both brothers may tie the story together. When she comes to live in the United States, she earns a PhD in philosophy and neglects her daughter Bela and her husband Subhash, whom she never loved. Mid-way in the book, Gauri abandons the family to take a teaching job in California, further extending the geographical reach and isolation of the characters in an already tenuous story. The book does not develop Gauri sufficiently to be a full-bodied character. She is a successful academic, but the philosophy she has learned makes little apparent difference in her life.

The novel drew me in at the beginning but gradually lost its force and its focus. I found the book at its best in its descriptions of places -- little details of scene in both Calcutta and Rhode Island. The initial setting for the story, with the relations of the brothers and Unayan's commitment to a terrorist movement, also held my interest. Some of the discussions of philosophy, particularly of German idealism and its appeal to Gauri also were fascinating and brought back memories for this philosophy major of a reader, but they don't lead anywhere in the remainder of the book.

Subhash and Gauri are both static and undeveloped characters and young Bela becomes stereotyped as she grows up. There is a feeling of unremitting sadness in the book as Subhash and Gauri are unable to make their marriage work and more importantly are unable after many years to shake the influence of Unayan. There is a sense in the book that some things cannot change and are beyond the scope of American optimism. While the book shows some sympathy for the underlying causes of the Naxalites, Lahiri is clear-sighted about terrorism and about the impact of the movement on the characters in her story and, more broadly, in India. Some parallels are suggested between the Naxalite movement in India and student radicalism in the United States in the 1960s, but this aspect of the book is not pursued. The writing of the book in its descriptive passages is lovely but Lahiri spends too much space in extensive discussion of how her characters feel rather than in showing them acting. The book loses some of its impact and becomes bogged down, much like the lowland of the title found in India in Rhode Island, and in oneself. .

I still enjoyed the book even though, as a whole, it did not fulfill the promise I found in the early parts of the novel. As with many novels, this book is sprawling in its scope at the cost of focus and development. Lahiri has earned recognition as a writer of short stories. Perhaps this shorter, more disciplined format helps bring focus to her considerable writing and observational skills. The novel shows the continued impact of terrorism and political instability on the intimate parts of individual lives, years and oceans removed from the terrorism. But the characters were too undeveloped and the scope of the book too broad for this novel to be fully successful.

Robin Friedman
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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 September 2013
The Lowland is a flat area of marshland next to the settlement of Tollygunge in Calcutta. Tollygunge houses a golf course and, even after independence, is well patrolled to keep the locals out. This symbol of colonial power is the catalyst to inspire brothers Udayan and Subhash to join the dangerous world of Indian-Maoist Marxism.

But, as time passes, the brothers mature. Subhash takes up a study scholarship at a university in Rhode Island whilst Udayan stays loyal to the cause. This parting of the ways is deeply symbolic of the crossroads at which India found istelf in the 1960s and 1970s - whether to look to the east or the west for its politics and its economy. For a long while, it was not clear which would prevail, even as India seemed to choose the west there were regrets and hints of reconsidering. There were turbulent times in which leaders were assassinated whilst the economy stagnated. The Lowland offers this drama in an exquisite and extended metaphor. Just as in Midnight's Children, we see wrong choices being made and opportunities lost. We see the grind and monotony of following the respectable path in Rhode Island whilst the history of India is out of sight and out of mind.

What maked The Lowland special, though, is the perfect writing that allows characters to feel real and complex; situations to feel three dimensional. Subhash and, particularly, Gauri have nuanced shades of light and dark. And there is no temptation to match morality to outcomes; both characters are well intentioned, thoughtful people but they end up hurting one another and hurting others without effort. They are caught in a web of their own making and the more they struggle to free themselves, the more ensnared they become. As the novel progresses, we start to see more of the backstory and understand more about how Subhash and Gauri came to make the choices they did, how they came to be the people they are. In particular, we start to learn more about how they each relate to Udayan. We see different points of view; we spend time with the older generation, and also with the new. This passing of the generations is done with sadness and poignancy. But as each generation loses the fire in its belly, so the next generation represents a fresh hope, as will the generation after that...

The depiction of places is also genuine; Calcutta is a city of bustle, airports, railway stations and history. The clothes are bright and the food is rich. It is refreshing to visit India and not be immediately sent to the slums. Rhode Island, by contrast, is cold and sterile, safe but bland. But for all that, it never feels less real.

There is not a word out of place in The Lowland, not a line that causes the reader to stumble. It is an engrossing and complex story that works on many levels. It is moving, it is frustrating, but it is always meaningful. Shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize, it will be interesting to see whether it can take the crown.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 12 July 2014
At heart, this is a family saga, albeit one with a smaller cast of characters than many books of this type. I like Lahiri's writing style, which is very economical, consisting of short sentences. There are no wasted words, and yet the writing is evocative and descriptive. However, it does manage to end up being a rather long book, and not one where an awful lot happens. The pace is slow, and despite touching on potentially exciting themes, it never becomes gripping. Although I liked the writing style, by the end I felt it plodded and I was looking forward to finishing it.

The main character is Subhash, a mild-mannered, dutiful marine chemist. He's a likeable and sympathetic character whom you want to have better luck in life. The lead female role, however, is taken by a character I could not like, understand or identify with. The circumstances have a lot of promise for a gripping and moving story to be created around them - but it never really seems to 'take off'. I spent a lot of the book waiting for it to 'get going' and eventually came to realise that it wouldn't. It's one of those stories that you get to the end of and wonder what the 'point' was. Of course, others may argue that there doesn't have to be a 'point' to a work of fiction. The fact it's a good quality piece of prose would be enough. And readers who feel that way will probably enjoy this because it is well written and I liked the style. It's just that my personal preference is to have at least some sense of where the story is going and of an overall framework to the plot.

The plot is lifelike and natural - the characters behave in believable (if not always understandable) ways - and this may be why it's not as exciting as some books. It's a family story whereby people muddle along and do their best, and a few notable things happen to them including a tragedy early on that comes as a genuine surprise. But after that high point of drama things settle back to their original rhythm of generally decent people doing their best in a difficult world - which is what would happen in reality of course.

Overall, it's not a bad book and I would read another by her as her style suits me. But it is slower paced than I like and overlong for what it has to say. It reminded me a bit of 'Gilead' by Marilynne Robinson, another well written book much loved by many, which I found too slow and meandering. If you enjoyed that book I would try this one, and vice versa.
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on 25 April 2014
The Lowland is ponds and paddy fields and what remains of the mangrove swamp that once covered the land before the area of Tollygunge was built on reclaimed land. Reclamation is the fundamental thread that binds the novel together. The reclaiming of one’s life when one has lost control be it through a death, dictatorial cultural conventions, marriage or being a parent.
The novel begins a few years after India’s independence from Great Britain. Tollygunge is located in the southern area of Calcutta, (now referred to as Kolkata), and is home to two brothers, Subhash and the younger by 13 months, Udayan Mitra. The brothers are very close during their childhood and both are high achievers at school and college. However, their personalities are as markedly divergent as the colours of saffron and green on their country’s flag;

“Udayan...was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving colours. But Subhash strove to minimize his existence, as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass.”

However, their closeness is fractured due to Udayan’s politicization in the aftermath of the Naxalbari uprising in the mid-1960s. His politics are Marxist in colour and through this he makes new friends who are of a similar political hue.
Subhash continues to study and in time leaves India for the state of Rhode Island in America on a fellowship studying Oceanography. Back home in Tollygunge Udayan becomes more deeply involved in his life as a revolutionary and meets a kindred spirit in the shape of Gauri. But Udayan’s revolutionary beliefs belie the reality of his situation;

“Udayan had wanted a revolution, but at home he’d expected to be served; his only contribution to the meals was to sit and wait for Guari or her mother-in-law to put a plate before him.”

Subhash returns to India on the death of his brother and finds a pregnant Gauri living in his parent’s home but being shunned by them. Subhash makes the dramatic and drastic decision to marry his dead brother’s wife, bring the child, Bela, up as his own and return to America with his new family.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel is as large in scale and as brilliant, weighty and mesmerizing as the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Each of the novel’s 406 pages shimmer with delightful prose;

“Once more these colours seemed to have been transported across the world, appearing in the treetops that lined his path. The colours intensified over a period of weeks until the leaves began to dwindle, foliage clustered here and there among the branches, like butterflies feeding at the same source, before falling to the ground.”

It is to the author’s credit that while there is the historical story of India being played out in the novel it is kept in the background and is never forced into the foreground to interrupt the story of Udayan, Gauri and Subhash. Many novels have already used India’s independence (Salman Rushdie’s excellent, Midnight’s Children) and its partition into two states: India and Pakistan (The wonderful Partitions by Amit Majmudar) as hooks as to hang their plots on. Jhumpa Lahiri has intelligently decided to veer away from the obvious and the often ploughed field of allowing a country’s history to drive the plot to the detriment of the novel’s characters.
The characters of Udayan, Gauri and Subhash are beautifully rendered creatures. All three make choices in their lives that are at once selfless and destructive; benign and malignant. These relatable characters will have you the reader going through a gamut of emotions and in particular when Gauri makes a decision that defies all reason, logic and decency. But, we know, though for many chapters we will never admit it, her decision was not only brave but necessary. Importantly the decision was character driven and with hindsight I realised the decision Gauri made was inevitable and I had unconsciously known all along she was going to make that particular decision.
The novel takes us from the late 1940s to the first decade of the 21st century, through the history of India and America. So, using adjectives like sweeping and majestic are inevitable but I make no apology for doing so. The novel’s sweeping nature not only describes its chronological nature but also describes the flow and boundless energy that emanates from each page.
As Sabhash and Gauri grow older they predictable wonder if decisions they made were the correct ones and more importantly if those decisions were possibly less selfless but more selfish. For Subhash, who loves Bela as much as her biological father would have, the strain of wondering if his secret will become known is palpable and heartbreaking.
The Lowland is a novel that deserves the accolade of being on the 2014 shortlist of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and for this reader it would not be a surprise if it won the prize.

First Line – “East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque.”

Memorable Line – “Once more the leaves of the trees lost their chlorophyll, replaced by the shades he, (Subhash*), had left behind: vivid hues of cayenne and turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning in the kitchen, to season the food his mother prepared.”

*my insertion

Number of Pages - 406
Sex Scenes – yes
Profanity – No
Genre - Fiction
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HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 24 October 2013
In this well-developed novel of family relationships, which is also a love story and a story of betrayal on several levels, author Jhumpa Lahiri introduces four generations of one family whose history begins in Tollygunge, outside of Calcutta, and then moves off in many different directions before settling finally in Rhode Island. Traveling back and forth in time, with points of view shifting among several different but interrelated characters, the novel creates an impressionistic picture of events which begin in 1967 with a political uprising in India, the family effects of which continue into the present. Two brothers, only fifteen months apart in age, become linchpins of the novel. Subhash, the older, more cautious brother, is far more apt to watch any action, even as a child, than his brother Udayan, the more adventuresome brother, who is always participating in the action and testing limits.

When, in 1967, an uprising in Naxalbari, four hundred miles from Calcutta, presages the beginning of a larger revolution of peasants against wealthy landowners, Udayan sees this as an impetus for wider change as a member of a Soviet-style Marxist organization, and after that, as a member of the Naxalites. While Subhash is studying out of town, Udayan is painting slogans and stimulating revolution, and when he meets Gauri, a philosopher who seems to share his point of view, he suddenly marries her, without seeking permission from his family and foregoing all the usual traditions. When Subhash soon after that receives a telegram to return home to Tollygunge, however, he knows that some family disaster has occurred. Ultimately, he returns to his PhD program in Rhode Island, but this time he is joined by his new bride, pregnant with a child which is not his. The father is his brother, Udayan.

Thematically, the novel considers all aspects of what constitutes a family, what responsibilities of family life can (or should) supersede one's personal desires, and how, if at all, love can flourish under circumstances in which two people decide to adhere to a set of traditions and responsibilities not necessarily of their own choice. "You can't go home again," physically or emotionally, the novel seems to say, at the same time that it also expands on the idea that we are who we are and must accept that. The characters' interactions, responsibilities, and the consequences are particularly fraught as the novel moves through nearly fifty years of personal and social change within one family through several generations, the novel focusing on the academic Subhash and his family in the United States for most of the novel.

Lahiri's prose is often elegant, and her descriptions of settings are perfect for the uses she makes of them. Rhode Island, along the coast, is true-to-life in its damp response to changing seasons and its glorious flourishing of life in the estuaries and marshes. The novel is somewhat less successful in its depictions of some characters, especially those of the mothers, both the mother of Subhash and Udayan and of the mother of Bela, whose career decision appears to be cruel. Because she is not fully developed, her actions are, unfortunately, less understandable to the reader than they might have been. The author does a remarkable job of straddling the line between realism and melodrama on an almost epic scale, however, a saving grace which keeps the reader actively involved and enthusiastic as Subhash and his family develop over three generations.
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