“The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri

It’s absolutely no secret how much of a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri I am. I have previously reviewed two of her other works on this blog (In Other Words and The Clothing of Books), and prior to starting this project over two years ago, I had already devoured Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth. The fact that I have met the author a few times now has only added to my admiration and love for her works. And yet, somehow, I hadn’t yet read her second novel, published back in 2013. I had to remedy this sin, and am I ever glad that I did, because it has cemented Lahiri as one of my absolute favorite authors of all time.

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The novel also showcases considerable growth on the part of the author, as she becomes more comfortable with describing and writing about sexuality and the characters’ relationships with their bodies, resulting in a downright sexy style at times that was breathtaking in its beauty and its realistic nature. The emotional depths that Lahiri is able to evoke are not surprising to her fans, and her ability to make foreign concepts and even a political and historical context unfamiliar to most non-Indian readers approachable and understandable is a clear sign of her absolute genius as a writer and storyteller. In short this novel is unmissable. I found that the scope and story reminded me a bit of Khaled Hosseini’s novel And the Mountains Echoed (which I absolutely loved), in that it spans different countries and perspectives, weaving a fascinating thread, and not losing any momentum or power. This sort of storytelling is very difficult to do, so my utmost admiration is reserved for authors who tackle such a complex project.

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Jhumpa Lahiri

The incipit of the novel centers on two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, and immediately establishes their very different characters. Subhash is the older brother, yet is more cautious, reserved, and weary of authority. Udayan is impulsive, unafraid of consequences, carefree, and somewhat reckless. The brothers are extremely close, and do everything together. Fascinated by the way things work, they take apart radios only to put them back together again, they learn morse code so that they can communicate silently with one another, it’s clear they are destined for academic greatness.

At university Subhash thrives, while Udayan gets swept up in the political movements of the Indian 60s. The eldest brother departs for graduate school in the United States, while the younger brother stays behind and zeroes in on the Naxalite Movement, becoming an adherent and believer in the communist ideologies at its center. Although separated there is a strong bond that unites and tethers the two brothers, one that neither distance nor other obstacles can ever sever. Even though one of the siblings is not present in much of the novel’s narrative after a certain point, this bond and connection is unalienable as well as unforgettable.

The novel has a wide scope, both chronologically as well as geographically. It spans from the 50s up to modern day, its story spans from India, to New England, to the West Coast. One thing I loved about The Namesake was that even though the story was definitely Gogol’s, other characters, especially his parents, were paid attention to, their humanity and agency acknowledged, they weren’t mere plot devices or stock characters. The same is true in The Lowland as well. While not all motivations or behaviors are explained or broken down, there is so much humanity present, the characters feel real, their experiences lived in and authentic. I cannot say enough good things about this magical novel. I loved this book, and Lahiri has become so important to me as an author that I am constantly surprised and taken aback when I meet people who have never heard of her or her works (she won the Pulitzer, for goodness sake!). This novel is both perfectly at home amongst the rest of her oeuvre, as well as a logical and strong step of growth in her writing journey and career. A necessary read for fans, and a strong recommendation to the uninitiated.

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