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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

book cover of The Lowland

When I first read this book late in 2014, I loved it – I found it really moving. But then I didn’t write a review of it, and forgot pretty much everything about it. This time around, I enjoyed it, but not quite as much as I did the previous time.

The Lowland begins with two brothers in Calcutta, perhaps around 1960. As kids, they do everything together – play together, study together, get into mischief together. But over their university years this begins to change, as Udayan grows frustrated with oppression and capitalist exploitation in India and gravitates towards the Naxalites, while Subhash lives more in line with his parents' expectations, dedicating himself to his studies, and eventually moving to the US to further those studies. The book mostly follows Subhash, who hears only from afar that his brother has defied convention and married discreetly out of love – Udayan’s wife, Gauri, becomes the second main character of the book. And I don’t really want to spoil too much of the story, but the book does follow the family, mostly in the US and in a couple of parts in Calcutta, for a few decades.

I think what I liked about this book is that everyone in it is certainly flawed, but in a way that I found empathisable. Udayan’s idealism incurs the wrath of the government, which causes pain for his family. Gauri experiences trauma that leaves her unable to form real, meaningful emotional connections. Subhash is kind of meek, doesn’t stand for anything. Bela holds on to bitterness like anything, and runs away to avoid tough conversations or feelings. They seemed like a family who were realistic in their imperfections (even if some of the events that shaped them are quite extraordinary), and I was curious to see how things could resolve.

But the book isn’t exactly full of tension, and I’m also not sure how I feel about the ending. It feels more like it petered out – the confrontation between Gauri and Bela saw Gauri fly back to India, but after a little time there and a weird flirtation with the idea of suicide she came back and resumed her established life, seemingly. The prospect that Gauri can maybe one day meet her granddaughter properly seemed a bit wishy-washy as a conclusion. But perhaps that’s truer to real life, too.

Overall, I didn’t find it quite as amazing as I remembered, but it was still an enjoyable book. Revising my rating to four stars.

★★★★

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.