I was keen to read ‘The Lowland’, having adored Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ and delighted that anything by her should achieve the shortlist. The novel has some themes which overlap with ‘Unaccustomed Earth’;the story takes place in both Calcutta and the United States, following the lives of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan , who are born in the mid 1940s and grow up in post independence Calcutta. Their lives take different paths, Udayan becoming involved in politics and specifically the Naxalite movement and Subhash becoming a scientist, an oceanographer ,and going to Rhode Island in the States to pursue an academic career. Interwoven with both their lives is the story of Gauri a young female student, whom Udayan meets in the early days of political activism, and relationships with parents and children in the different contexts of Calcutta and the States. While thematically there are similarities with her short stories, the big difference here is obviously the format and ambition of the longer novel form. Lahiri seeks to move the focus away from personal experience by setting it in the broader topic of post independence political unrest. I found this unsatisfying as I felt her treatment of the Naxalite movement was superficial; I wanted to know more about this movement, its aims and objectives, more detail about its development and the social context in which it started. After Vikram Seth and Rohinton Mistry I want historical and political struggle in India in all its complexity! Some of the writing about personal relationships was, however, as good as in the short stories and, for me, especially the depiction of the older generation; I was moved by the tender account of the boys’ mother ,Bijoli , bereft of her family and turning to her servant Deepa for love and support and then of the older Subhash meeting his daughter Bela again after many years. The broad sweep of time and place reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Lacuna’ where I also felt that the impact of the narrative was diluted by the ambitious scale of the novel, while at the same time containing some intense and brilliant pieces of writing. Many readers will enjoy ‘Lowland,’ but for me the short story is where Jhumpa Lahiri shines.
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