The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri’s novel is officially published later this month.  It’s a curious quirk of the awards that a novel can be longlisted – indeed shortlisted – before any general reader has had the chance to read it. But than again, the Man Booker is not a reader’s prize – it’s an industry prize. Lahiri has already won the Pulitzer prize, awarded in America, where she lives. Now she is on the shortlist for the Man Booker, Britain’s literary equivalent.

The Lowland is the story of one man’s life, from his childhood in India, through a failed revolution that claims his brother’s life, to his marriage to his brother’s pregnant widow, Gauri, and their subsequent life in America. Though many miles distant from the lowland of the title – a marshy swamp behind the house where Subhash and his brother Udayan were raised – they are unable to escape the circumstances of his death. Gauri eventually leaves to pursue a highly successful academic career, abandoning her daughter, who has no idea that Subash is not her father. By the end of the novel, Subash is in his seventies and his last connection with India is gone.

Philip Hensher, in his round-up of the Man Booker long list for the Spectator, called The Lowland an airport blockbuster. I was mystified by his description to start with – the novel opens with Subhash and Udayan  as boys, climbing over the wall of the privileged enclave of the golf club (where, years later, Subash will go to celebrate a birthday). It’s an engaging opening, one that suggests big themes. The brothers are close friends, but their friendship is affected by Udayan’s increasing involvement in a revolutionary movement which ultimately fails to effect change. Subash moves to America, and there, for me, the novel lost a sense of purpose and Hensher’s comment began to make sense. From being a story about India, it becomes a story about a man working in a university in America, without bringing much in the way of insight or perspective either on where he is or where he’s come from. I enjoyed the plot, which fairly rattles along. But while the reader is kept informed of the characters’ feelings and motivations, they are rarely invited in. Sentences such as, ‘The skin had split from its contact with the pathway,’ when a character falls over and cuts her hand, felt overwritten. And I felt a little cheated, as though I’d tuned into a programme advertised as a literary exploration of a particular aspect of Indian history and politics and found myself watching an American soap opera.

Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy were masterclasses in how a family saga can tell stories far beyond the domestic. The opening and closing chapters of The Lowland suggest a similar power. The ones in between seem, somehow, to belong to a different novel.

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