In keeping with my desire to read recent book award winners and more “literary fiction,” I just finished The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. This book was on the National Book Award shortlist for 2013. I should maybe mull this over a bit, but here goes.
The prose is gorgeous and rich, the descriptions lush and awe inspiring. You feel like the characters are long lost family members or friends. At times, you want to hug Subhash and tell him things will be okay. You want to bitch slap Gauri and call her bad names.
The story begins in India, in the Calcutta neighborhood of Tollygunge, where Subhash and his brother, Udayan, grow up. We see the mischievous imps they are, although it’s mostly Udayan. Subhash is a little more serious, and not quite as courageous, but will do most things Udayan asks when they are children. As they grow, they are both accepted into university, although they are separated for the first time in their academic careers. While at university, Udayan becomes involved in the political Naxalite movement. Udayan is passionate about correcting the wrongs he perceives in his beloved country, but Subhash does not have the same passion for these political uprisings. Subhash leaves home and goes to America to study in New England. Udayan continues in his life of rebellion, although in the midst, he gets married, to a wife of his own choosing. Shortly after, he gets killed.
Subhash goes home to India upon hearing that his brother has been killed. He meets his sister-in-law, Gauri, and discovers she is pregnant. He also realizes that his parents do not like Gauri, and intend upon taking her baby when the baby is born. Subhash, who has promised his parents that they can arrange his marriage, decides to marry Gauri and take her back to America, so that she can keep her baby. Everything goes according to plan….well, I will let you read the book to see what happens once Gauri reaches America.
Again, the book was beautifully and exceptionally written. I would be interested in reading her other works. But (you knew there was going to be one, right?)…there’s not much of an actual plot. As a matter of fact, other than India being the birthplace and home of many of the characters, this book could almost describe my own life in many ways. There’s no big life mystery to solve, no great romance, and no time travel (haha), it simply follows Subhash and Gauri’s lives for several decades. Laura Miller said in a Salon magazine article from October 12, 2011, that the National Book Award was like the Newberry Medal for adults, and that often times the nominated National Book Award books are written “in a poetic prose style, elliptical or fragmented storytelling – that either don’t matter much to nonprofessional readers, or even put them off.” This is true of the last two nominated books I have read, as well as the winner from 2013, and even a longlisted book, that I really did love, but it was quite fragmented in the telling.
So, as much as I like the writing style in The Lowland, the story itself is sort of “meh,” and nothing to write home about (ha). There is conflict, but again, it’s no different than listening to one of my acquaintances telling me about their divorce or their aging parents, or numerous other mundane day-to-day details. You should expect a post about literary fiction versus genre fiction soon.