Friday, January 24, 2014

Historical Fiction: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is my first Jhumpa Lahiri novel, although I had always heard good things, and the same was true for her latest, The Lowland. The book was also nominated for the 2013 Goodreads Choice Award for best historical fiction, although it didn't win. Still, my hopes were high when I was able to pick this book up from the library.

The Situation: Subhash and Udayan were born only 15 months apart in 1940s India, and are often mistaken for one another. Naturally, they grow up to be close companions, but they are incredibly different. Although Subhash is the older brother, he is the more careful one - the rule follower. Udayan is much more daring and adventurous, and they both know it. Even so, the two remain fairly close even after they begin attending different colleges to study different things. Only when Udayan becomes heavily involved in the Naxalite movement - a rebellion committed to ending the growing inequality and poverty in India - and when Subhash moves to Rhode Island to continue his studies, do the brothers really begin to grow apart. But even as they live separate lives across continents and oceans, they still manage to stay in touched, just barely.

The Problem: Turns out that political rebellion and revolution are messy and dangerous. Especially as what Udayan is involved in starts to include acts of violence that endangers people's lives, including his own. He knows there is potential that danger could end up spreading to his new wife and his parents, whom they live with. Inevitably, something happens that causes Subhash to return home to India for the first time since he left, and he feels the need to attempt to pick up the pieces and heal the family from the tragedy. But it just isn't that simple. What Udayan has done will have ripple effects for decades and across generations. It will separate parents from their child, end a loveless marriage, cause a mother to abandon her daughter, and give that daughter a sense of abandonment that no amount of therapy could completely heal.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that starts in the late 1940s and ends in present day. It begins with the birth of Subhash and Udayan and follows them as they grow up and become adults with their own families. Throughout the book, the story is told from different points of view, but always by a third-person omniscient narrator. Most of the time the story is told from Subhash's point of view, but the reader also gets the story from the viewpoint of Gauri, Udayan's wife; Bela, their daughter; or even Subhash and Udayan's mother, Bijoli. The overall theme could easily be what it means to be a family, but this is also a love story, a lesson in the political history of India, a cautionary tale about the cost of revolution, an exploration of motherhood, and even what it means to live the scholarly life. In short, it's complex. 

My Verdict: This is a great novel that tells a pretty complicated story in such a way that makes it seem simple and straightforward...until you try to describe it to someone else. It isn't just about two brothers or just about rebellion or just a love story or just about life in America after having grown up somewhere else. It is about all of these things, and then also about many others as well. And no matter which setting the chapter happens to be placed in, Lahiri describes it beautifully, even when she is pointing out the things the characters don't like about it. The story is easy to follow, even as it shifts back and forth in time and between countries, and even when a character is doing something you may or may not agree with, it is easy to still relate to them and empathize and see where they are coming from.

Favorite Moment: When Subhash stands up to his mother regarding some of the customs she insists on keeping despite how demeaning and degrading they are. 

Favorite Character: It is easy to pick Subhash, as he disrupts his own life and inconveniences himself to save others when he really doesn't have to. But I also like Bela, as she is able to make her own way in her life despite serious personal setbacks.

Recommended Reading: As I said, this is the first novel by Lahiri that I have read, so I can't really recommend another one that she has written. So instead I will recommend And the Mountains Echoed by Khlaed Hosseini, although his characters are from Afghanistan, not India. 

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