Thursday, November 25, 2021

Book 311: The Lowland

"The future haunted but kept her alive; it remained her sustenance and also her predator. Each year began with an unmarked diary. A version of a clock, printed and bound. She never recorded her impressions in them. Instead she used them to write rough drafts of compositions, or work out sums. Even when she was a child, each page of a diary she had yet to turn, containing events yet to be experienced, filled her with anxiety instead of promise. Like walking up a staircase in darkness. What proof was there that another December would come?"

Dates read: April 20-26, 2019

Rating: 8/10

I tend to believe Tolstoy when it comes to that stuff about unhappy families. Except that I think that there are so few truly happy families that we can safely exclude them from the data set. Pretty much every family has its own special kind of unhappiness. All of our parents screwed us up in their own ways. And their parents screwed them up, and we'll screw our own children up. The only thing to be done is to do your best to keep the damage minimal.

In Jhumpa Lahari's The Lowland, brothers Subhash and Udayan are so close that they're often confused for twins despite being a few years apart. They have a more or less happy childhood, building radios and playing in the marshy lowlands near their family's Calcutta home. As they start to grow up, they start to grow apart. Udayan becomes political, part of the Naxalite movement being repressed by the authorities. Subhash, on the other hand, turns towards school, eventually leaving India to study marine biology in Rhode Island. Separated by thousands of miles, the brothers do still write letters to each other, and Subhash is surprised to find out in one of them that his brother has gotten married. In defiance of expectations for his parents to chose a bride, Udayan has married a college student, Gauri, for love. Not too long afterwards, though, Udayan is killed.

When Subhash returns home for his brother's funeral, he finds an untenable situation: Gauri is pregnant, and his parents are planning to take the child to raise and kick her out after the birth. There's only one way out that he can see: he'll marry her, bring her back to the United States, and they'll raise the child as a family. With nowhere else to go, Gauri agrees. But this doesn't mean that everything's suddenly okay. Gauri gives birth to a daughter, Bela, and Subhash devotes himself to being a father. Gauri, though, is still traumatized by the death of her husband and the second marriage she had no real choice but to go through with. As Bela grows up, the family's tensions stretch to the breaking point.
This book is epic in scope, tracking Subhash through nearly his entire life and other characters, like Gauri and Bela, through much of theirs. Lahiri does her usual beautiful character work here...Udayan doesn't get a lot of narrative time until a flashback near the end, which leaves him feeling slightly unrealized, but the rest are developed in a way that feels achingly real. Gauri makes a decision that leaves her probably the least sympathetic of them, but the way Lahiri builds up to it, and what happens after, make it understandable. I also appreciated Bela's arc, the way that it seemed like she would grow up to become one sort of person because of the environment she was raised in, and then other events leading her to become a very different sort of person instead. All three of the major players were fascinating and I wanted to spend more time with them.

This is definitely one for people who prefer character over plot. Little actually "happens" besides a family coming together and coming apart. There's a more dramatic bit at the end, the part that goes back to the events leading up to Udayan's death, but I almost wished it hadn't been there or it had been told in its proper place in the chronology. I tend to think that Lahiri's writing is elegant almost to the point of being restrained, and having this part at the end feels out-of-character. That emotional remove, though, is what kept me from enjoying this novel more. It's a sophisticated work, but it deals with big emotions, and it felt like Lahiri was more devoted to keeping that style over letting the book really breathe, letting those feelings really build and explode. As it was, I admired it but didn't really connect with it. Still, it's a very well-written novel and one that I would definitely recommend to others.

One year ago, I was reading: Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls

Two years ago, I was reading: After The Party

Three years ago, I was reading: The Possibilities

Four years ago, I was reading: In The Woods

Five years ago, I was reading: The Girls

Six years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

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