Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Lowland

I remembered being appalled when I first read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. I remember finding her character to be selfish and irresponsible, that sometimes we find ourselves in places we do not necessarily like but that does not excuse us from our responsibilities, from caring for those who depend on us. The character’s affair is one thing - who cares who she has sex with - but her repudiation of her family, her suicide in the end, is completely another matter. I could not fathom how a woman, or a man, could turn her or his back on children.
I am spoiled. My parents loved me and gave me everything I needed and more. I was raised to believe that when I should I ever have children, I would give him everything of myself to them in return. And the dog can’t just be returned when it misbehaves or gets sick or grows old. Grandma still has to be visited even if it isn’t always very fun to be at her house. There are things we do for our family, a obligation due to circumstance.
I had the same immediate reaction to Jhumpa Lahiri’s newest novel, The Lowland, as I did to The Awakening. Lahiri’s novel centers around a family from Calcutta: two talented brothers, Subhash who grows up to become an American scientist, Udayan who becomes involved in the Naxalite rebellion that terrorized India in the late sixties; Gauri, the woman who falls in love with Udayan, but moves to America with Subhash; and finally their daughter, born from Gauri’s love for Udayan, but who grows up with Subhash for a father. The book spins together the loneliness of duty to one’s family, the political assassination of a loved one, and finally the betrayal of a child by her unwilling mother.
Even if Gauri’s betrayal of her daughter at first seemed like the betrayal Kate Chopin’s protagonist at the end of The Awakening, there’s a lot more to Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel. The story is all there and just because Gauri’s character leaves a bad taste in my mouth, I didn’t want to put down the novel. I wanted to know where this family ended; I wanted to know if they could heal themselves, find a way to make amends with the tragedies that unfolded decades before in restive India.
The Lowland is a quick read, and while that was helpful because the story kept my interest, Lahiri doesn’t make reading the pleasure it could be. While Lahiri occasionally captures a brilliant expression, a well written description, much of the prose follows a “and then, and then, and then” pattern. The writing is driven by narrative, one thing follows the other, and there seems to be an inevitability to everything that happens, both in the larger narrative but also generally in the flatness of every subsequent sentence.

Maybe that’s the thing about this novel: as a reader I wanted to know how it ended, and enjoyed learning a lot about the Naxalite movement and a part of Indian history with which I was not familiar, but nothing surprised me. Each event seems predictable as it unfolds, the characters don’t change, they don’t come to any awakening, they act for themselves, unaffected by the events around them, and Lahiri’s storytelling matches, each sentences marching straight toward its mark, straightforward.

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