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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Lowland: The Year's Best Novel?

Jhumpa Lahiri's second novel, 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.

20 comments:

  1. I've never read Lahiri, but this review really makes me think I need to change that.

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    1. She's quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. Highly recommended!

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  2. I just read the beginning of the review since I have a copy and don't want to influence my read, but I just have to say I'm so glad you liked it. A blogger recently wrote on a post I did about upcoming reads that it was a disappointment and I was bummed.

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    1. I hope you love it! I really think that blogger is in the minority - or just being contrarian.

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  3. So anxious to try this one - love how this author writes.

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  4. I can't wait to read this. And--I can't wait for October, when Lahiri is in my town, giving a talk moderated by Louise Erdrich!

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    1. Oh wow - that's awesome! The combined writing knowledge of those two.....

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    2. I know! Two of my favorite authors, in conversation. I'll die happy. ;-)

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  5. I have read her two collections of short stories and am greatly looking forward to Low Lands. The best 2013 book I have so far read is TransAtlantic by Colm McCann. I have not yet read Bleeding Edge

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  6. A great plot presented in an artistic style.

    "The Lowland" is a well presented work of fiction on the fate of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who grow up together in the suburbs of Kolkata. They make a conscious decision in their mid twenties to lead different walks of life which are diametrically opposite to each other.

    The author masterfully depicts the bonding they share with each other, the result of which, they end up sharing the same girl by the name Gauri. The story proceeds further with the complications Subhash and Gauri face in leading their married life and raising a child. The thrill of what had actually happened to Udayan during his last days is maintained till the very end of the novel.

    The references made on the rise of the Naxalite movement in Bengal and its impact on common man is apt.

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  7. Very well written and gets right into the story. Characters built layer by layer always retaining interest of reader.Excellent entertainment.

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  8. Best book of the year? Wow. thanks for the heads up. Love her other books but didnt know if this one is getting adequate press or good reviews.

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  9. I read it this January, and I was blown away by its beauty. I was surprised by how expansive it was- in terms of location, time, and emotions. I liked how I could never whole-heartedly hate someone (Gauri) even though I would have if she had appeared in a different novel under similar circumstances; I like how Udayan, long gone, still lives in the undercurrents of their lives. Even the descriptions of the Naxalite movement were well explained- it had me googling a lot of stuff (which is kinda shameful considering that I'm Indian).

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  12. Very well written story,it is related to our life...

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  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  14. This book was beautifully told allowing the reader to intimately get to know each of the characters while independently forming an opinion and understanding of them.I could not put this book down and both devoured and savoured every page. Jhumpa Lahiri is a wonderful storyteller. Now that I am done, I am filled with that void that finishing only the greatest books leaves me with.

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