The year comes to a close, with my final book, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the books tells the story of Subhash Mitri, a young man from a suburb of Calcutta born in the closing years of World War Two, and of his family, focusing on his younger brother Udayan, his wife Gauri, and his daughter Bela. Spanning almost seven decades the book, the Mitri’s lives are not jam packed with excitement, but they are just like any lives, traumatic and tolerable in turns with occasional glimpses of joy.
The Lowland is beautifully written. Lahiri treads the fine balance between deep description and purple prose to wonderful effect. The opening chapter (which you can read here) is probably the most engaging of all of the Booker nominated texts I’ve read so far, and although the heavy description isn’t quite as prominent for the rest of the book, it sets the tone really well. Lahiri also manages to convey the isolation of her characters without making them seem distant from themselves or from the reader, something that I think a lot of authors fail.
I especially liked the way that Lahiri treated the narration. The book is told from a subjective third person perspective, generally focused on Subhash. However, as the book progresses we also get insights into the thoughts of Gauri, and later on Bela, with one short excerpt told from Subhash’s mother’s perspective. Each individual voice is different enough that while we have no chapter headings or other indicators as to who is talking, it is easy to pick out which character is the focus, and the irregular way that personalities other than Subhash enter the narrative is all the more compelling. After many chapters from his perspective, it was particularly refreshing to hear what was going on inside Gauri’s head, rather than just what he thought was happening.
I do have two minor quibbles. The first is that The Lowland does seem to have fallen into the trap of “literary fiction equals non-traditional punctuation of dialogue” so prevalent in the Booker longlist this year. However, because of the way Lahiri has constructed her narratiuve, it doesn’t really make too much of a difference, because there isn’t that much in the way of conversations, and whenever there is, it’s not so heavy as to make the lack of speech marks or inverted commas a hindrance. The other is that like Five Star Billionaire, a lot of what happens in the story is told in retrospect. However unlike Tash Aw’s novel, The Lowland remains interesting throughout. This may be due to Lahiri’s narrative voice, which is more aloof than Aw’s, but also I think because there’s less going on in the plot. Five Star Billionaire relied on rapid change, that was the whole point, but The Lowland’s plot is consistent and the gaps sometimes span decades, so it feels less cramped.
The Lowland also does a good job of weaving historical context into the narrative. Udayan, Subhash’s brother is heavily involved in the Naxalite insurgency in India, a movement that I was only very peripherally aware of, but while there is quite a lot of information to pass on, Lahiri manages to provide the context without massive text dumps. The organisation becomes less currently prominent (though the effects of their actions are long reaching) as the book goes on, but we still get regular updates as it were on the state of India, Subhash looking at it from the outside.
As to the Booker? Well I’ve still got to read Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, but I’m going to come out now and say that I think that The Lowland should win the Booker Prize. It was a thoroughly engaging story, was of a decent length unlike The Testament of Mary (which is still perhaps the better written of the two), and actually enjoyable to read, in contrast to Harvest. I was originally cynical as to Lahiri’s eligibility for the prize, given that she spent almost all of her life in the US, rather than her homeland of India or any other commonwealth nation. However, it seems churlish and a little insulting to suggest that this somehow deprives her of a right to Indian identity, and so I now wholeheartedly believe that it should win the prize.
And there it is. The Lowland was the last of my hundred books, and I finished it with seven hours to spare. It was quite a good one to round out the year I think. Fear not though, the blog will be continuing. In the short term, they’ll be a couple of summary posts, and I’m going to finish reading and reviewing the Booker longlist, but beyond that I do have plans for another challenge. I’m still trying to finalise the exact plan, but I’ll talk about it in more detail in a separate post sometime during the next couple of week.
Thanks for reading!