Monday, April 14, 2014

The Lowland: Shhh…the literary fiction is talking

Maybe this is A Thing with lit fic or Pulitzer Prizewinning authors or Jhumpa Lahiri (I haven’t read enough of any of these to say for sure), but The Lowland is QUIET AS HELL. From beginning to end, it’s saying all these huge things, but it never raises its voice above a whisper.

The story focuses on two brothers growing up in 1960s Calcutta, separated in age by only 15 months and inseparable in just about every other way. But while one is often mistaken for the other around the neighborhood, their personalities are starkly different, as I’ve heard sometimes happens with siblings.
Udayan was the one brave enough to ask [the actresses] for autographs. He was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colors. But Subhash strove to minimize his existence, as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass. (p. 16)
As the boys enter young adulthood, the civic-minded younger brother, Udayan, gradually becomes a passionate participant in the Naxalite rebellion, which I wasn’t super familiar with before and am only moderately familiar with now. As I understand it, the movement began as a noble battle against inequity and poverty but, with the catalyst of an iron-fisted, violent government backlash, exploded into an equally violent rebellion (I find myself wanting to compare the Naxalites to the Black Panthers, but that might just be because I was getting an American History X vibe from the dynamic between the brothers, and yes I know Derek Vinyard was a skinhead, which is basically the opposite of a Black Panther, but more importantly WHY did he have to be so attractive?).


Subhash, the older brother, chooses the quieter pursuits of academia, which lead him to a college in Rhode Island and add physical distance to the emotional distance already growing between him and Udayan.
You’re the other side of me, Subhash. It’s without you that I’m nothing. Don’t go.
It was the only time he’d admitted such a thing. He’d said it with love in his voice. With need.
But Subhash heard it as a command, one of so many he’d capitulated to all his life. Another exhortation to do as Udayan did, to follow him. (p. 47)
While Subhash is deep in his postgrad studies in Rhode Island, he receives word that something has happened to Udayan. He rushes back home to Calcutta and to his grieving family, which now includes Udayan’s young wife. The rest of the story can be filed under “Aftermath: Emotional and Otherwise.”

And now, at the risk of sending the collective literary community into a spasm, I want to mention that The Lowland kiiiind of reminded me of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

But that’s only because it includes a big setup that has elements of something your typical Nicholas Sparks novel might introduce early on and then spend the rest of its pages squeezing dry for maximum emotionally manipulative impact. After the initial setup, though, these two hypothetical paths in the scenic New England wood diverge to create the crucial distance between that $1 box in every bookstore and the Pulitzer Prize winners’ list.

Such wisdom in one so young

To illustrate my point while endeavoring to sidestep spoilers, when Subhash returns to Calcutta and meets his brother’s wife for the first time and she is quietly attractive and intelligent, yet chronically misunderstood, you might smugly think to yourself, “Yup . . . I see just where you’re going with this, because I’ve ingested the Nicholas Sparksflavored Kool-Aid.” Well, Lahiri will tell you just what she thinks of your preconceived notions, and you will be upset initially, but then you'll thank her for valuing you enough to be honest.

Then you’ll hug.

Just shut up and hold me, Lahiri.


  1. What an insightful and PLAYFUL review. I loved this book and I loved your review of it. I do love the way Lahiri whispers her wisdom and the strength of her characters in this one. good call on that. We'll know in about an hour or so whether this book wins the Big P!

  2. Why, THANK you. This was my first Lahiri, and I'm wondering if it's pretty typical of her writing style. I just bought The Namesake because I want more of this quiet writing. It's so refreshing.

    But you called it with The Goldfinch, lady. *Pulitzer-sized fist bump*

  3. This is one of those books that I'm sure I'd love if I gave it a chance but I can never work up the energy to get excited for. BUT Your opening paragraph (and then the rest of the review) is so bonkers good I'm going to run off and add my name to the looooong library queue for this one. Huzzah for quiet books that are sort-of-but-absolutely-different to Nicholas Sparks!

  4. What a giant compliment that is! (Also, this isn't the sort of book that gets anyone excited, I don't think. Perfectly normal reaction on your part. Also, there are no zombies.)

    Be honest, it was a little bit the Edward Norton GIF, too, that convinced you. Right?

  5. I think her writing in The Lowland is typical of her style, so you may well enjoy The Namesake. It's good, but it's also my least favorite of her books. Up until The Lowland, I was convinced that Lahiri should stick with short stories and avoid novels. But if you liked the writing and the quiet style of Lowland, read ALL of her books but definitely her stories. She really shines there.

  6. The Sparks comment did scare me a little BUT I trust both you and Lahiri to not ACTUALLY give me something Sparks-like. So yes, I will need to read this.

    Also I was totally thinking "Dammit, Ed Norton as skinhead, why must you be so hot? My brain does not know what to do right now." I should probably watch that gif for a little while longer so I can't make a decision.

  7. Good to know. I'll check those out.

  8. Any mention of Nicholas Sparks should strike fear into the hearts of intelligent readers. You're right on track there.

    *scrolls up to look at Ed Norton GIF*

  9. Holy, what a description. Really want to read this now. Also, super helpful exchange between you and Emily, below. So, yay books, is the main point of this comment. Yay books and yay Megs.

  10. It's ALMOST as if we all got together and talked about books in real life. Hey thanks, Internet!