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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.

 

*****

Edited by MisterHobgoblin
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It sounds so good Misterhobgoblin. I have read only one novel by Jhumpa Lahiri i.e. The Namesake and I quite liked Lahiri's eye for details. Be it a simple train journey or recounting the good old memories her narrative was spot on. But, unfortunately I did not really like the plot of the novel and never ventured to read any more by Jhumpa. But your review has got me interested.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I finished this a couple of days ago and have had to take some time to collect my thoughts.  I agree with Mr. HG that this is a wonderful book.  I read it in hardback, so I didn't mark in it (which I will do in a paperback and do happily in a tablet) and so do not have enough examples of her clear, precise language.  But here's one:  Guari is describing the time when she first met and fell in love with Udayan, which has led to so much happiness, heartbreak, and change in her life, as "[a] time she'd crushed between her fingertips, leaving no substance, only a protective residue on the skin."  

 

I picked that image not only because I noted that it was on page 153 as I was reading it and so could find it again, but also because it so clearly describes what happens to almost everyone in this book.  Whenever anyone in this book acts in a self-protective way, they end up damaging their relationships with those around them, leaving lifelong scars.  

Guari and Udayan are madly in love, but Guari learns from his horrific loss not to expose herself too much and as a result is unable to really love either Subhash or Bela (or anyone else).  She's one of the most alone characters I've ever read about in a book.  Bela learns a similar lesson from Guari's absent love and holds herself apart from almost all close relationships, but she has something Guari did not--the love and devotion of Subhash, one of the best gifts a father can give a daughter.  I can't blame her for rejecting Guari so angrily, but as an outsider, not an abandoned daughter, it seems to me that Guari and Bela are very similar in how they react to loss and it's not good for either of them.  Even Subhash, who tries so desperately to have relationships with those he loves, holds the secret of Bela's parentage until he frees both of them (all of them if you count Guari) from that secret.  It makes sense that he was finally able to have another happier marriage once he freed himself from all that fear.

 

 

But really, that's just one point in this book, which makes you both think and feel.  A wonderful and engaging book.  Highly recommend.

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I was completely absorbed by this book, I love her writing style which combines being economical and poetic at the same time, and found myself savouring each page.  My only slight quibble is that I found the parts in the latter half of the book where Gauri wasn't present flagged a little, but even so I really enjoyed this and would recommend it wholeheartedly.

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