The Lowland, out today, might be the best novel of the year. It's the story of two brothers, lifelong secrets, the immigrant experience, and how parents' mistakes can still resonate decades later, influencing the lives of their children, even as adults.
It's a masterwork; an absolutely awe-inspiring piece of storytelling. Lahiri's prose is so clear and crisp, you cruise through her story effortlessly. There are no extra words, no tortured metaphors, no page-long stream-of-consciousness sidebars. Every word has it's place and there's a place for every word.
But if you've read Lahiri before, none of this comes as a surprise. She already has a Pulitzer under her belt for her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. And even before its publication, The Lowland already appears on the short list for the Man Booker Prize, as well as the long list for the National Book Award. That's some serious literary cred.
Beyond the craft, what makes the story itself so compelling is Lahiri's ability to slow-burn the secrets. The big reveals aren't BIG REVEALS — they're often tinier details that change our whole way of thinking about characters' relationships or what we understand to be their motivations.
The two principals here are brothers Subhash and Udayan, who we first meet as young boys in Calcutta in the 1950s. The story follows them over the course of their young lives, as their paths diverge, and there's an unspoken, almost subconscious, competition between the two, even as they remain extremely close. Soon, Udayan is inspired by the Naxalite movement in 1960s India — a fascinating piece of Indian history of which I'd been totally ignorant until this story — and becomes increasingly radical, running with other revolutionaries. Subhash takes a less confrontational path, emigrating to the U.S. for post-graduate studies at a small, seaside college in Rhode Island.
Life continues. Bad things happen. Good things happen. There is marriage, children, career, heartbreak. But you don't want to know the details. You want to let Lahiri reveal them to you in the way she intended. It's a story that first draws you in, and then moves you through at different speeds — it's contemplative when it needs to be, but it slings you along at an appropriately brisk pace (both in terms of years and action) when it has to. We traverse more than 60 years in this novel, but it never feels like you missed anything important. That's truly a neat trick.
Some readers may nit-pick with certain details or choices characters make, or with the generally "soft" feel of the novel. But to me, these are both strengths — the characters do actually keep you guessing, and Lahiri's prose...well, I just can't find any fault. As I mentioned, it's just so sharp and readable. It's a novel I didn't want to end, a novel we'll all be talking about on year-end lists, and a novel I can't recommend more highly.