I don’t quite know why I’m doing the Booker Longlist Challenge, since it’s really become a forced march of books I haven’t really enjoyed reading that much. I had high hopes for The Lowland, since the synopsis sounds aces, but it just didn’t do it for me. I found it a mostly frustrating read, difficult characters and an odd blank style don’t really mesh for me.
Subhash and Udayan Mitra are brothers growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart. It’s the politically tumultuous 1960s, and as they grow up, their lives take different paths. Subhash is a dedicated student who ends up studying in America, Udayan becomes heavily involved in the Naxalbari political movement before becoming even more radical. He rejects cultural traditions and marries the girl he loves into the bargain. He and Subhash occasionally write to each other until one day, Subhash receives the telegram simply stating “Udayan killed. Come if you can”.
Subhash returns to India to try and heal the wounds Udayan’s death has left behind, a healing which eventually takes him and Udayan’s widow, Guari, back to the USA. As Guari is pregnant by Udayan, Subhash does the only thing he thinks he can do, which is marry her and raise the child, Bela, as their own. I don’t think you need me to tell you it doesn’t end happily ever after for anyone, do I? By this point, we’re barely 100 pages in, so there’s still so far for all of them to go.
What I really took from it is this is a novel of people searching for their identity and for their place in their world, for somewhere to belong. It’s not an easy read, mostly because it’s so relentlessly downbeat and populated with miserable characters (Gauri in particular is vexing. I found myself wanting to reach into the pages and slap her upside the head on more than one occasion), but Lahiri doesn’t really thrill me as a writer either. It mostly feels like a blank, boring, straightforward read, which just meant I found it quite difficult to tune in when I was reading it. Often I’d get to the end of a paragraph and realise I hadn’t taken in a single word.
To make matters more perplexing, there are sections where Lahiri does seem to care about her characters (mostly the sections dealing with the Mitra boys parents) and some flashes of brilliance in her writing. When Gauri is taking stock of how wrong she went with a situation, she notes “with her own hand she’d painted herself into a corner, and then out of the picture altogether”. Later in the novel, there’s a beautiful moment with her otherwise painfully worthy daughter Bela, as she unburdens herself “finally she told him about Udayan. That though she’d been created by two people who’d loved one another, she’d been raised by two who never did”.
So for all that promise, all those moments of brilliance, I was left with an overwhelming sense of “and?” when I finally trawled to the end of this one.