Those of us who read a lot of fiction have reason to feel a bit smug after The Guardian‘s piece based on research suggesting that reading novels develops empathy. Easy to feel pleased with yourself for doing something which for many of us is an enormous pleasure but I do read fiction to find out about other ways of life, other cultures, other ways of thinking and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake did just that: gave me an insight into both how it feels to leave your country in search of a better life then watch your child embracing a culture which still feels alien to you, and how it feels to be that child. I was delighted, then, to see her new novel shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker.
The Lowland is a much more of political novel then The Namesake. It begins in the years after the 1947 Partition. Two brothers, only fifteen months apart in age, grow up in suburban Calcutta. The eldest, Subhash, is quietly cautious, always keeping a protective eye out for the daring Udayan who looks outwards into the world, yet it is Subhash who leaves to pursue his studies in America in the ’70s while Udayan stays at home becoming increasingly politicised by the corruption, poverty and injustice he sees around him. Letters are intermittent, but Udayan writes with news that he has married Guari only telling his parents after the event. When Udayan is shot for his part in a Naxalite plot, Subhash comes home to find the pregnant Guari living with his parents who barely acknowledge her. Desperate to do the right thing, he marries her taking her back to the States where Bela is born partly filling the chasm left by Udayan’s death but only for Subhash. Theirs is a marriage doomed to failure but Gauri’s abrupt departure, leaving Bela behind, still shocks casting a long shadow over both Bela and Subhash’s future.
A sense of loss, of loneliness and isolation, of things left unsaid and undone pervades The Lowland. Lahiri unfolds the story of a family marked by tragedy and its aftermath, quietly revealing the motives and events that lie behind each of their actions in beautiful understated prose so that the unfathomable becomes clear, the abhorrent understandable. It’s a superb novel, remarkable for its compassion – the bond between Bela and Subhash is particularly moving. I can’t imagine a book more deserving of the Man Booker. Fingers firmly crossed.