You’re going to read many, many raves about The Lowland this fall, and the good news is, all the applause is well deserved. The cover is a big clue about how good the book is, because there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about it, not even a color. There’s no need to sell what’s on the pages because the writing speaks for itself.
Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth, all of which are superb. The Lowland is her new novel and already on the long list for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. That’s because The Lowland is nothing short of a triumph. Lahiri is at the height of her powers and one of the best writers in literary fiction today. I’d venture to say that if you’re going to read only one novel this fall, this should be it. I’ll stake my reputation on the recommendation.
The Lowland is the story of the Mitra brothers from Calcutta: Subhash, the dutiful scholarly one, and Udayan, passionate and opinionated. While Udayan becomes increasingly involved with the 1960s Mao-inspired Naxalite political rebellion, Subhash goes to America and adapts to life on the seashore of Rhode Island to pursue a graduate degree. Udayan marries a studious girl named Gauri, only to become the victim of his self-invited political violence. As always, Subhash returns to India to clean up Udayan’s mess.
But that’s only the premise. The nuanced beauty of the novel is in the consequences, and the psychological implications for Subhash and Gauri in particular. The landscapes of Calcutta and Rhode Island serve as an evocative background for a story that resists melodrama, instead exploring the implications of youthful decisions and how they drive a person’s destiny. Lahiri has a particular talent for showing the passage of time in a manner that feels incredibly real and deep, not rushed or glossed over. There’s a way the setting sinks into you over the course of the book. She lets you feel like you’ve been fully immersed in her world.
One question the book raises (without releasing spoilers) is: What are the consequences of keeping secrets from our children, and what happens when they find out the truth as adults? Lahiri’s answer might surprise you. It’s not about the answer though; it’s the question that will weigh on your mind and wrench your heart.
As longtime readers of this blog know, I often discuss books with my mother-in-law, who is always up-to-date on a variety of genres. When I bragged to her that I had an advance copy of The Lowland, I thought she’d be impressed. Instead I was shocked to discover she’d never read any of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work. “You must read The Namesake immediately,” I practically shouted, and to her credit, she did. (How many times have we all pressed a book on someone to have the recommendation disregarded? Or felt that glimmer of annoyance when someone gives us an unsolicited command to read something?) She was up here to see the grandchildren only a week later and she was devouring The Namesake. I don’t know how she did it since the twins filled every waking moment. But at the end of the trip she was done and raving about how much she loved it. She immediately pre-ordered The Lowland rather than taking my physical copy because she wanted to read it on her iPad (Kobo app, people, Kobo; support the indie bookstore over the unnamed giant corporation).
So if you don’t take my word for it, take my mother-in-law’s. Jhumpa Lahiri is as good as it gets, and The Lowland is her best work yet. Literary yet accessible, heartbreaking yet restrained, I absolutely loved it.