Reading the Man Booker Prize 2013: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

This book made me cry. That might not sound like much of an endorsement if you are forced to appear in public during the day, or don’t fancy soppy novels, or think it means the book is horrible, but it’s not like that. Let me explain.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland is the story of two brothers growing up in Calcutta during the 1960s. Subhash and Udayan are close in age and always seen together. When Udayan is drawn towards violent Marxist politics, the brothers drift apart. While Subhash decides to study for a doctorate in Rhode Island, his brother’s story, occasionally glimpsed in letters, gets tragically cut short. Most of the book deals with the effect his story has on his young wife Gauri, Subhash and their families. It’s difficult to convey any more of the plot without spoiling most of the revelations the novel has in store, and there are quite a few. What impressed me most is the way in which the revelations are made throughout: Lahiri employs a very neat, almost journalistic style to sum up events or lead the reader to moments of emotional turmoil for her protagonists. This leaves enough room for the reader to form an opinion or adjust their expectations, while also condensing a long storyline into a few poignant moments that prepare the way for the protagonists’ future. There’s both a chill to such short reports of people’s lives, and a stark beauty in the helplessness they convey. It’s this helplessness that made me cry. Udayan’s last moments, told from different perspectives and left to be remembered and dealt with by the members of his family throughout the book, are shown to be utterly insignificant for the course of politics in his country. While they are never even mentioned in the papers, they linger for more than 40 years. This is life.

For me, this would have been enough, but there is much more to the book. Both Subhash and Gauri live out their adult lives in the US, struggling with the past and the present, with Udayan’s decisions as well as their own. Happiness is not a concept that is employed liberally in the course of the book, although it ends on a cautiously optimistic note. Beauty is conveyed in Lahiri’s style, which is never overly emotional or dramatic, but always poignant and quietly poetic. The author has won a Pulitzer Prize for her previous work, and she’s clearly the master of her style. Everything about The Lowland is perfectly laid out and researched, but while the volume of information in Ruth Ozeki’s Booker nominee didn’t sit right with me, Lahiri’s novel never seems too ambitious or pretentious. This is partly due to its stylistic means of compacting the plot, but also to its settings. Both the Calcutta suburb and the Rhode Island campus serve as closed systems that allow the narrator to focus on a select group of people and disregard many outside factors that would otherwise have an influence on them. Subhash and Gauri, for instance, while choosing to stay apart from others in Rhode Island, are never singled out because of their origins, as they would have been in many other settings. The novel  may lose some of its claim on realism, but it’s doing its thing in a clever, controlled way. It merges two very different worlds and times in the minds of its protagonists, and by doing so, it says a lot more about the human condition than any long, philosophical treaty could.

As for its chances for the Booker Prize, it’s hard to tell. In a way, it’s exactly the kind of sweeping, beautifully crafted book that is screaming out for a big prize. But with the inclusion of all things big and American looming on the horizon, this year’s jury might want to go with something less perfect and more singular, especially given Lahiri’s background as someone who has lived in the US from infancy and is widely regarded as an American writer. Whatever happens on Tuesday, Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel will be big either way.

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Karo

Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

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