The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: A Review

the-lowland-jhumpa lahiriThe Lowland

Jhumpa Lahiri

Six Word Summary: Bengali first world problems. Again. Headdesk.

I rate it: 5/10

Brothers Udayan and Subhash are inseparable while growing up in a working class family in Kolkata, but adulthood takes them down different roads. The outgoing and bold Udayan joins the militant Naxalite movement spreading like wildfire in East India in the 70s. The quiet, measured Subhash chooses to move to the US to do his PhD and ends up staying there. Then Udayan gets killed by the paramilitary, and seeing that there is nobody to take care of his heartbroken pregnant young widow Gauri, Subhash offers to marry her and take her back with him to Boston. Gauri accepts in order to get away from the trauma and to give her unborn child a secure environment to grow up in, but can marriage and parenthood that comes from so much compulsion ever be a success?

Jhumpa Lahiri is an exquisite writer, the words flow from her pen like honey dripping from a comb. Her English is smooth and fresh, she can surprise you with the way she chooses to describe something mundane. She has an eye for details, and amazing observation skills.

But.

But, Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel about the different faces of love and┬áresponsibility did not win her the Booker.

But, she ends up writing about the same tiny group of people she has always written about.

But, that group is unfortunately not remotely as interesting as Ms. Lahiri would like us to believe. They lead insipid lives and seem to be incapable of happiness.

But, despite having read more than 20 books that were “essential to my understanding of the Naxalite movement…“, Ms. Lahiri botches up her facts and is able to present what is at best a caricature of the times and the people. The Naxalite period is just meant to provide a convincing backdrop to her NRI love story.

But, while using an explosively turbulent political period as a backdrop, the novel remains innocent of any politics or ideology. An important character is involved in and dies for the Naxal movement, but this death has exactly the same impact on the story as it would have if it were caused by choking on a fish-bone.

But, Ms. Lahiri should really stick to short stories. Without a tight word limit, she falls all over the place, spending pages describing a bird’s call or the color of a sunset.

But, the story is incredibly meh.

Yeah, The Lowlands is supposed to be the book where Lahiri breaks out of her comfort zone, where she writes about things other than Bengalis wallowing in self pity in New Jersey or New Mexico, but 25% in, she loses her nerve and just sweeps her remaining central characters back to familiar territory, Boston to be precise. It’s like “Oh look, people have so many problems, like poverty, and social inequity, and crushing of rebellion, and shoot-at-sight orders against one’s son or husband, but you don’t want to hear all that, and I don’t want to tell it, so let’s talk about first world problems like … dissatisfaction in marriage! or infidelity! or the inability to bring up well adjusted kids! much more interesting and relevant, amirite?!”

The Tolly Club: an obnoxiously pretentious insititution

The Tolly Club: an obnoxiously pretentious institution

Jhumpa Lahiri names her novel after the ditch outside Udayan’s house where he was shot, but the whole story seems to be a struggle to get as far from the lowlands as possible, rather than coming to terms with it. She chooses the bland over the edgy, chooses to make us watch her characters die of loneliness and (possibly) boredom, rather than of gunshots or tram accidents. Well, tell you what Jhumpa, this Bengali has had enough of whining, dull NRIs going on and on about their ridiculous first world problems. I don’t care if you channel Faulkner, I’m not going to buy another book by you unless you break out of that silo. Write about Americans, write about Indians, about Mexicans, Chinese, Eskimos, just please no more Bengali PhD students and their bored housewives and their spoilt kids in various university towns across America. Please.

Also, the hardback cover art is really fucking ugly. What was Vintage thinking?

-Amritorupa “die-spora” Kanjilal

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20 Responses to The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: A Review

  1. Haha, thanks for the enjoyable review. I like her short stories, but The Namesake was tedious and I expected more of the same in this one.

    This sounds like literary Silsila :D

  2. Those are precisely the reasons that have prevented me from reading this book Not another one of the same…

  3. That’s surprising, but interesting… I read an absolutely glowing review of the same book on a book blog I really admire:
    http://bookssnob.wordpress.com/2013/10/06/the-lowland-by-jhumpa-lahiri/#comments
    Do you think the difference in perception is because that blogger has less experience of Jhumpa Lahiri and Indian culture? Would you recommend this book as a first to someone who has never read any Jhumpa Lahiri (eg. me)?

    • Hi Mahathi,

      Thank you for sharing Booksnob’s review. While I totally agree with the ‘stylish eloquence’ part, I’m less excited about the content than they are. As you suggest, that could be because I actually live in Kolkata, have been inside the Tolly Club, and know a lot of people who used to be/still are a part of the Naxalite Movement, or have lost family members to it. Therefore, what maybe appeals as a romantic backdrop to an outsider has the same effect for me. Also, I’ve read each of Lahiri’s books as they came out, and I see her falling into an easy pattern now which annoys me.

      If you haven’t read anything by her, I would suggest you start with Interpreter of Maladies.That book is truly brilliant.

  4. Ouch, this doesn’t sound very appealing.
    I’ve only read “Interpreter of Maladies” and I thought it was pretty good.

  5. Most of the reviewers have the same opinion as you have. Though I did not read her short stories, I did really like her ‘ The Namesake’. Anyway I am going to take the plunge…As usual, the review is wonderful.

    • Thank you Shalet. The only people who seem to be enjoying the book thoroughly are Non-Resident Indians. Which is ok, i guess, it was targetted towards them.

      • Finished the book today morning! I quite enjoyed reading the book which I felt was written about the failures of Bengali’s to learn to move on. A death in lowland is significant since the lowland vanished however, the scar of death tremendously shaped several lives linked to the dead. How relationships hovering around a character got influenced in ways to lead them to decisions and choices which may appear to be ‘open’ but was actually reminiscent of bong hypocrisy. The book is about differential love of bong parents, orthodox behavior of bongs towards letting go and inability to accept change by face value. Naxalism is just used as a means to convey failure….
        P.S. I am not against Bengalis and proud to be one :)

        • Hi Alivia,

          Good to hear you liked the book. I think I agree with you that Jhumpa lahiri does an excellent job of observing the idiosyncrasies of Bengalis.I feel however that she has been telling the same story in various books in the last one decade.

          Thanks for such a well thought out comment!

  6. You always do a very good job reviewing books, and what you deliver more than not leaves a hunger to read the them. You are always a blessing my sister…thanks for sharing Amri! God bless always!

  7. Finally! Someone who feels that Jhumpa Lahiri did not live up to her promise this time around. I, too, was very disappointed with The Lowland (my review’s here: http://www.indiabookstore.net/bookish/review-the-lowland-by-jhumpa-lahiri/), and I’m rather surprised at mainstream reviews being so effusive in their praise…..

  8. Depiction of utmost introspection of duality and ambiguity among duty and responsibility in one’s life can be best personified by Jhumpa Lahiri.. The usage of lucid words transfixes my thoughts and sights after completion..

  9. Pingback: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri | JoV's Book Pyramid

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