The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Disappointingly average…

😐 😐 😐

the lowlandSubhash and Udayan are brothers, growing up together in post-independence Calcutta. Subhash is conventional and studious, fully intending to follow the path expected for him by his parents. Udayan is more adventurous and becomes politicised after the brutal suppression of a communist uprising in the small village of Naxalbari. Udayan soon becomes a member of the Naxalites, an offshoot of the Communist Party, which believes in direct action – i.e. terrorism – to achieve its ends. Subhash meantime takes up an opportunity to go to the States to continue his studies in oceanography.

This is where Lahiri makes her first strange choice. Instead of remaining in Calcutta with the charismatic and interesting Udayan, learning more about the Naxalites and the political situation, we are whisked off with the frankly dull-to-the-point-of-catatonia Subhash, and given detailed accounts of the considerably less exciting environment of the campus of a University in Rhode Island, where the most thrilling thing that happens is that Subhash decides not to get involved in Vietnam protests. From there on, we only learn what is happening in India through the occasional letter that Udayan sends, until an incident occurs that makes Subhash return briefly – but only long enough to marry, when he and his new wife return to Rhode Island. The bulk of the remainder of the book is taken up with detailed minutiae about the extremely dull and miserable lives led by Subhash, Gauri and their daughter, Bela. Subhash and Gauri both spend their lives studying and then teaching in Universities so we rarely get off campus and, after an entertaining start, Bela turns into as dull and misery-laden a character as her parents.

I suspect the aim of the book is three-fold: to show the sense of displacement felt by immigrants, to examine the effect of a violent incident on the futures of those affected by it and to look at the moral questions surrounding the use of terrorism as a political tool. The blurb describes it as ‘epic’, ‘achingly poignant’ and ‘exquisitely empathetic’. It is epic in the sense that it covers a period of 50 years, but geographically and emotionally it remains static for most of that time. The other claims, I’m afraid, would depend on the reader caring about the characters and sadly these characters are not written in a way that induces empathy. Lahiri’s second strange choice is to make the book entirely humourless and passionless, with Subhash and Gauri perpetually wallowing in their self-created misery. Each has a successful career, but neither seems able to form real relationships – not even with each other.

Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri

The writing is completely flat, and so is the story; no passion, no light and no real dark – just greyness, like living under permanent cloud-cover. On the rare occasions that Lahiri discusses the politics of the Naxalites, she does so in a way that reads like a textbook or a Wikipedia article, which means that there is no depth or humanity to it. The old saw of ‘show, don’t tell’ was constantly running thorough my mind at these points. The moral questions around terrorism are only discussed at the end of the book, in a very superficial and throwaway manner. The implication is that these characters were damaged by Udayan’s actions, but we are given nothing to make us believe they were significantly different people before. In fact, it is very clear that Subhash in particular lacks passion and humour before the life-changing incident just as much as after.

For a plot that promises so much, the book fails to deliver. Competently written rather than beautifully, I find it hard to understand why this book was shortlisted for the Booker. If this is really one of the best books being produced in the Commonwealth, it goes some way to explaining why the Booker is being opened up to the rest of the world. But I suspect it was shortlisted for the author’s reputation and the ‘worthiness’ of the message rather than for any real qualities of writing or story-telling. A disappointingly average read that I didn’t feel gave me an adequate return on the time I invested in it.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

30 thoughts on “The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

  1. Interesting review. I have a soft spot in my heart for Rhode Island, where Lahiri studied, but
    I can tell that she didn’t bring any enthusiasm to that part of the story. I think you’re right that
    Lahiri was shortlisted because of her previous work. And I am indeed a fan of her earlier work.

    • D’you know, I’d be quite happy to read a book set in Rhode Island if that was what it was supposed to be about. But the title, the cover and the blurb all suggest this one is supposed to be about India and the Naxalites…very strange. (And why a book based almost entirely in America should be selected for the Booker – a Commonwealth prize – baffles me.) I haven’t read any of her earlier stuff – and the problem with being so disappinted in a book is that it leaves me with no real desire to read her other stuff. Not for a while, anyway…

  2. No action, humor, or interesting conversations! What dadblamery. But great ripio review. 😀

    The names are interesting, I think…but imagine being stranded on a campus an entire novel (basically)! That would drive this professor nuts.

    What does shortlisted mean, FEF?

    • Thanks, C-W-W! You’ll be glad to hear I’m not recommending this one for your TBR. 😉

      The whole thing should have been interesting – but just wasn’t, sadly. At one point one of them is looking out of a window and moaning on about her miserable life, and I found myself thinking ‘Go on! Jump!’ Not a good sign!

      For the Booker prize they pick a ‘longlist’ of about 100 or so books, mainly put forward by publishers, and then the judging panel cuts this down to a ‘shortlist’ of the 6 best, out of which the winner is picked. This one was shortlisted but didn’t win.

  3. FictionFan – I am so glad that your reviews are candid. This story seems to have a promising premise. But to me, ‘poignant’ only happens if the reader connects with the characters. If not, well, I don’t see how a book can be engaging.

    • Thanks, Margot! Yes, I still think the plot has so much potential to make a really interesting, involving book – I really can’t understand why she made the decision to set 80% of the book in the US when the title, the blurb and the cover all suggest it’s going to be about India…

  4. Oh dear, that’s sitting on the kindle waiting to be read, because I have loved all her previous work. I think I’ll still try and get round to it but at least I’m not now going to be too disappointed if it doesn’t come up to expectations.

    • Of course, you may love it. It’s getting plenty of glowing reviews, though it’s also getting a lot like mine. It seems to be more popular amongst people who’ve liked her previous stuff, though, than with people like me coming to her work for the first time…

  5. What a thoughtful review. Thank you. We thought the story and the locations felt ‘real’, but the main strength was the author’s quite effortless and understated prose.

    • Thanks! Yes, I didn’t have a problem with the way she described Rhode Island, just with the fact that she decided to site the bulk of the book in the US rather than India, when everything from the title to the cover suggests it’s a book about India. But I’m afraid I found the prose flat and lifeless. In fact, I usually include some quotes in my review but found at the end that I hadn’t highlighted any passages as standing out particularly.

      Thanks for commenting – it’s always good to get an alternative viewpoint. 🙂

  6. I remember commentary about this book at the time it was on the Booker short list that it was a novel of two halves, with Te second distinctly weaker than the first. Exactly your experience also. I have the book on my e reader and will get to read it at so,e point but at least I know now not to be too disappoint

    • Of the ones I’ve read so far, this was definitely the most disappointing (just The Luminaries still to read). But then, loads of other people seem to be loving it, though it seems to be getting pretty mixed reviews overall.

  7. Don’t think I’ll bother with this one – I thought it sounded odd in all the comments at the judging ceremony. Enjoyed your review tho’.

  8. I really liked this book, and I think it’s because it felt like a fleshed-out version of one of her earlier short stories. I do remember reading somewhere that she said she’s finished writing about Indian immigrants in the US though, so you may like what she publishes next.

    • I’ve noticed that a lot of the people who’ve loved the book have read her earlier work, whereas people coming new to her are being more negative. Perhaps it’s due to expectations – I really feel the blurb is completely misleading and previous readers might have been less surprised with the direction the book takes. The blurb even mentions Vietnam which barely rates a mention in the book, and gives the distinct impression the book is mainly about India and the Naxelites. As a result all the America stuff felt like a huge diversion somehow…

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