When someone like Jhumpa Lahiri comes out with a new book you just know that I’m going to read it. As a Pulitzer Prize winner, her books are always well written and highly acclaimed. The Lowland is no different, having made it on the short list for the Man Booker Prize.
The Lowland tells the story of two brothers in Calcutta who take very different paths as they grow up. Subhash more than fulfills his parents’ dreams by flying off to the United States for graduate school. Udayan, who is Subhash’s intellectual equal, remains in Calcutta to pursue a more controversial and political calling by becoming involved with the communist Naxalite movement. Most of the story focuses on Subhash’s time in the United States, which came as a bit of a disappointment to me. The Naxalite movement in India in the 1960’s and 1970’s was such an important time in the development of the newly Independent India, and its reverberations continue to be felt today, and yet outside of South Asia very little is known about it.
The Lowland is written in a very understated style that is pervaded with a sense of melancholy. I think the Canadian cover of The Lowland (pictured above) captures this style very effectively. Everything that occurs is told in a very flat way. The highs are not very high, and everything else seems to be low. I am not a fan of this style. Though there is a lot to gain from reading The Lowland, i have to admit that reading it made me a little tired. It was not a book I could sit down and gobble up in one reading.
By contrast, the UK cover captures the dynamism of the times portrayed in the novel, as well as the politics that are always lying just below the surface. If I were to judge a book by its cover, it is a book I would much rather read. Not only that, the UK cover brings to mind the parts of the novel I really enjoyed.
Who would like this book? Obviously, The Lowland is going to appeal to those who like good writing and literary fiction of the highest order. As a contender for the Booker Prize, I am not quite sure who it is going to fare. So far it is the first on the short list that I’ve read, but I feel its chance of winning may be slim more for political reasons than for actual merit. I think this book would also be well suited to those who are interested in finding out more about a political movement that is not normally discussed in fiction set in South Asia. Lahiri’s inclusion of the Maoist insurgents known as the Naxalites makes The Lowland her most overtly political novel. It is a direction I would like to see her move in again in the future.