We selected The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri as our next book club book. I’d read some not so great reviews after the fact and then over the weekend I was out with one of the girls in my book club and she mentioned that she had been trying to read it and was just not getting into it. Five nights got her 5 pages in because it was just not gripping her.
I was nervous to start The Lowland. I thought that I would be caught in a position where I had to read this book but I wasn’t motivated to get through it because it wasn’t doing it for me.
I will admit that the opening pages did not grip me but that could have had everything to do with the fact that I was suffering from a ridiculous all-day hangover.
Subhash and Udayan are brothers, growing up in Calcutta during the years after India’s Independence. Only 15 months separate them and they do everything together. They are a pair in all that they do – they study and play together, they sit their exams together, they excel in school together. By the time the boys reach university, it is time to separate. They go to different universities, make different friends. But they both leave together every morning.
Udayan becomes politically active, aligning his beliefs with the Communism he feels is working so well in Mao’s China. He marries a fellow student, Gauri, without permission, and gets ever more deeply involved in illegal activities to try and change the world.
Subhash goes to America to complete his graduate studies. He always plans to come home but doesn’t return home until a family tragedy forces him to. There he is confronted with the decisions that Udayan has made and the course of Udayan’s life forever changes Subhash’s.
This book reminded me of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. Or even Middlesex. It is the complete story of a family, grappling with the decisions they make, the consequences spun out over generations. It moves between India and Rhode Island and California, following the story back and forwards through time to provide a clearer picture of what actually happened.
I think the trouble with this book for people is that there is no one character that is truly likeable. Udayan is selfish and outspoken, blind to the merit of a quieter way of life; Subhash is content to let things happen to him, never standing up for himself; Gauri closes herself off, fobbing her choices onto someone else to deal with; Bela is angry and shiftless.
But I think this is one of those novels that doesn’t shy away from the truth of the human condition, that is content to let its characters be their full selves even if they aren’t particularly pleasant. Life is messy: people get angry, they hurt each other, they don’t always take responsibility for themselves. The Lowland shows us how those behaviours can play out. I think this is one of those books that make people better humans. If you were to recognize yourself in these characters, I would think it would make you want to change that part of yourself, to live without those burdens.
And my whole book club gets points for not reading about more white people.