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.