Reading Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri makes me wonder if she could find the beauty in my life: if our modest one-bedroom apartment would somehow sound artistic and purposeful if she described it rather than me. Perhaps a daily commute downtown on the red line train would be picturesque rather than simply tedious. Where I’d focus on the stained train flooring, she’d paint a picture decorated with the faces of those riding alongside me, and backsplashed with the 6:18 am sunrise.
If you’ve read Jhumpa Lahiri’s work before, you’ll understand exactly what I mean. She has a way with words that I’ve scarcely encountered before, as though her world is realer than mine. Reading her prose makes me wish I could see elements of my daily life with as much vividness as she seems to see hers. I felt this way after Interpreter of Maladies, which was a gift almost a decade ago for my 16th birthday, and the feeling hasn’t changed after reading The Lowland.
The Lowland starts off slow—this isn’t for those looking for a book with harrowing espionage and lascivious love scenes. It’s the story of an Indian family, but mostly through Subhash, the unassuming eldest child. Despite the fifteen month difference, Subhash is inseparable from his younger brother Udayan. The Lowland begins with tales of mischief in Tollygunge, outside of Calcutta, and follows them as they become very different men. Udayan, immersed in the Naxalite movement against the Indian government, and Subhash, entrenched in his environmental chemistry studies, which eventually take him to the United States.
If you are the type who enjoys political thrillers, a book about Udayan would suffice. His story is fraught with political strife, murder, and passion, until his life is cut short. Udayan is murdered at the lowland behind his family home, leaving a pregnant wife to live with his family. From here begins the story of a family picking up the pieces in the aftermath of unfathomable loss.
The Lowland is such a successful story because of Lahiri’s ability to craft a story using different perspectives. With ease, she describes youthful boyishness with the same familiarity as elderly femininity, leaping perspectives in order to fully tell the family’s story. Additionally, her grasp of Indian political history allows her to effortlessly intertwine the Naxalite timeline into her character’s lives. While concerned about Subash, Udayan, and Bella, the reader simultaneously learned about Indian uprisings as though it was a character as well. That is a skill not every writer has honed.
I give this book 4 out of 5 stars. I found The Lowland somewhat hard to immerse myself in, but couldn’t put it down once I’d truly began to care for the characters and understand the surrounding historical context. Once again, Jhumpa Lahiri grasp of language has proven why she should be required reading for aspiring writers who care about the craft.