The Lowland

I’m a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri, so I was thrilled that she came out with a new novel (her more recent work having been short story collections).  Because it’s Lahiri, the style in The Lowland is excellent and the writing is well done overall.  However, I found the story and characters a bit more thin than I would have expected.

In The Lowland, a family saga of two brothers unfolds concurrently with civil strife in India and the life of a foreign student in the United States.   The book taught me something about a political movement I hadn’t previously known about, and I always enjoy immigrant stories.  I should say up front that I did enjoy reading the book, in spite of some reservations described below.

Although I enjoyed the book, I can’t really figure out why it was short-listed for the Booker Prize last year.  I wanted to find big themes and connections.  I wanted to be mesmerized by a big looping story of parent-child and sibling relationships and the meaning and cost of political change, but I felt like the book didn’t quite get there.  There were times when I finished scenes unsure of why they had been included, other than to prove that Lahiri could write them.  I felt like one of the brothers was believable as a character, but the amount he is put upon felt extreme, one of the brothers seemed like a stereotypical rebel, and the brothers’ daughter/niece struck me as being too conveniently opposite of her parents (Mom and Dad are professors, I’ll be….a farmer!).  I never got a sense of particular depth from any of the characters.

I hadn’t thought of it myself, but when I read the LA Times review of The Lowland I found myself agreeing with Porochista Khakpour’s insight that the book is sort of like an extended short story–and the strengths Lahiri brings to that genre didn’t quite make the leap to the longer form.

The Lowland is still a sight better than many novels, and I don’t regret reading it.  If you enjoy Lahiri’s writing or are interested in the subject matter I’d still recommend it.


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