Jhumpa Lahiri was one of my favourite new discoveries in 2013 so I have really been looking forward to reading her latest novel, ‘The Lowland’ which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year and has recently been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. It tells the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who grow up in Calcutta in the 1950s and 1960s. While Udayan’s involvement in an underground Communist movement ultimately results in his death, Subhash starts a new life in the United States, later marrying his widowed and pregnant sister-in-law, Gauri, and taking her with him back to New England.
The beginning of the story about Udayan’s involvement with the Maoist Naxalite movement represents a change of setting from much of Lahiri’s previous work which has never really touched upon radical politics in depth. However, although the scope of ‘The Lowland’ is wider and more ambitious compared to her first novel, ‘The Namesake’, the story soon settles back into a set of themes which will be familiar to those who have read Lahiri’s other work, namely the Bengali immigrant experience in the United States and the bridging of these contrasting identities and cultures.
‘The Lowland’ feels like a book which has been written very slowly. The characters are vividly drawn and the prose is plain, precise and dense all at the same time. One of Lahiri’s specific talents is her understated observations about the challenges faced by young couples in Subhash and Gauri’s situation. The nuanced way in which she describes their marriage of convenience and the consequences it has for Gauri’s daughter, Bela, is devastatingly perceptive and the ending is particularly powerful.
Overall, Lahiri’s real strengths lie in her mesmerising short story collections ‘Interpreter of Maladies‘ and ‘Unaccustomed Earth‘ and I think that either of these books would be a better place to start for those who are new to Lahiri. Nevertheless, ‘The Lowland’ rightly deserves the recognition it has recently received by the judges of various literary prizes and I highly recommend it to those who enjoyed her other work.