Welcome to Conversational Era, a new semi-regular collaborative feature which finds us chatting with readers, authors, & fellow bloggers about a myriad of different subjects.
Today, Penny Kollar and Michelle Williams join Aaron for an in-depth spoiler-free discussion about Jhumpa Lahiri’s Man Booker Prize and National Book Award nominated novel The Lowland.
Penny is 1/3 of the Literary Hoarders that works in research administration by day and dreams often of reading and working amongst books full time.
Michelle Williams is an avid “reader” of books and a “rider” of bicycles. When she is not cycling you can catch her reading and when she is not reading, well, she is probably pedaling about somewhere. Her blog, A Reader and A Rider journals her reviews of literary fiction.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland tells the deeply moving story of two Indian brothers whose lives are forever changed by a tragic event that threatens to tear the very fabric of their family apart. It’s about how we get stuck, unable to shed the ties that bind us and leave the past where it belongs, but it’s also about misunderstanding and miscommunication, and what happens when lives are built around false assumptions.
Aaron: It seems like every time that I close the cover on another of this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novels I instantly think to myself, “this should win!” Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel is so affecting that it’s two days later and my brain is still trapped inside of some sort of depressive funk. What makes this novel so absorbing is the way that the author almost effortlessly transplants the reader directly into the headspace of each of her chosen subjects. I feel like I personally lived all of these fictional lives. ALL . OF. THEM. It’s a dizzying, off-putting experience, but I feel like I’m a better person somehow because of it.
All this said, I’m so dazzled that I’m not quite sure where to begin this particular discussion. There are a number of prevalent themes throughout the novel that we could explore and pinpointing a starting place feels like an exhaustive undertaking. Rather than rattling them all off in bullet point format, I’ll ask you Penny, what was your biggest takeaway from the book? Which of Lahiri’s messages resonated most with you as a reader?
Penny: Oooh, thought provoking question. To be honest the biggest takeaway from this book was the power that the longing for Udayan held over everyone. How “stuck” everyone was in keeping his memory alive so to speak. The most notable is obviously Guari, but for me the whole section with his mother was emotionally crippling and so heart-wrenchingly written. Just the whole thought that they sacrificed a lifetime of happiness and chose familial duty steeped in the past. It was this that had me thinking about Guari and Subhash long, long, long after I closed the pages of The Lowland. I think Lahiri achieved a new way of writing of family dysfunction as well. Bela’s life is completely shaped by the dysfunction of Guari and Subhash, born out of the dysfunction of their need to honour the memory of another.
To Michelle, building on the above, you have commented that you did not enjoy this book as much as the other BookerMarkers have enjoyed. Can you provide details as to what your biggest complaint would be about The Lowland?
Michelle: My biggest issue with The Lowland was the staccato manner in which it was written. I felt like it was written in a very choppy, brusque manner that was off putting to me. This abrupt approach irritated me as I was wanting more details or smoother transitions. However, as I wrote my review, I wondered if Lahiri wrote the book in this manner to insure we kept the characters at arms length. I think she did not want us to get close to her characters – just as her characters were not able to become close to each other. If that were her intent, then I applaud her style. At the same time though, it left me unsatisfied and wanting something different.
So, Aaron, the book centers on two brothers. The older was the more docile whereas the younger was the more headstrong. In most cultures, regardless of their nature, the oldest child is the more revered. Why do you think Lahiri wrote the characters in the opposite role with the younger being the more revered?
Aaron: In thinking about this and attempting to formulate a response I wavered back and forth from the most intricate possible explanation to the simplest. What I’ve decided on is reverence by presence. It’s much easier for Udayan’s life to take precedence and and much simpler for him to demand center stage in the family because he’s physically there with them in India. Subhash on the other hand has for all intents and purposes fled from India to Rhode Island and has cut himself off from the family in favor building a different life. Therefore the child which the parents still have some power over, the one the one that still needs them, gets all the attention. What’s most interesting in this scenario, at least to me, is that Udayan is with his parents, but is willfully rebelling against every tradition they hold dear, while on the other hand Subhash has left, but holds tight to the ideas of tradition and the values that were instilled in him. Of course it’s these traditions and values that ultimately are his downfall.
Penny, the brothers are obviously very different from one another, and a big reason that Subhash decides to leave is because he knows that Udayan never would. Do you think that they have a rather large case of sibling rivalry or there more at stake? When Udayan doesn’t want Subhash to leave, for example, is he being manipulative or are we reading too much into it? As readers, are we purposely being told a slanted story so that we’ll favor the actions of Subhash over those of his brother?
Penny: I do not think that Udayan was being manipulative, I think it was more along the lines of being upset with Subhash and feeling that his belief system, or loyalties were deeply flawed. Udayan didn’t feel that Subhash’s ease to leave the country at that point in time to be very honourable. For myself, I didn’t read it as though it was being slanted to favour Subhash over Udayan. Or, I didn’t feel more for Subhash over Udayan. Subhash’s decision to leave was I think a chance to separate himself and establish his own identity? Or to actually see if he could carve out an existence without Udayan. He certainly didn’t agree with Udayan’s political beliefs and by leaving to study in the US, it allowed Subhash to concentrate and focus on where his true beliefs lay – science and study. Like Michelle’s comment above, it is rather an interesting portrayal as yes, it does seem to be more the norm that the older brother is more revered or the leader of the siblings. In The Lowland it is quite the opposite isn’t it? I do think I am babbling at this point.
Aaron, I most certainly wouldn’t be disappointed to see The Lowland take the Booker, but perhaps you could expound on the reasons why The Lowland is a very worthy contender.
Aaron: Ask me and on any good random day and I would give my reasons on why any of four of the books would win. Ask me on a random bad day and I’d gleefully expound upon why two them don’t have a shot in hell at winning.
Right now I think The Lowland is my individual lock to take home the prize. I felt personally invested and involved in this story from almost the beginning and after it was all over it was still haunting me. I greatly enjoyed many of the shortlisters (and not so much one of them in particular), but none of them came close to affecting me the way this particular story did. I won’t retread the ground I covered at the start, but I will add that I’ve never read Lahiri before this and now I want to read everything she’s ever written in the very near future.
Michelle, you didn’t like this one very much. Want to take up the other side of the argument and talk about why you think this doesn’t deserve the prize?
Michelle: I am not sure if I dislike it more when I love a book that others don’t care for or when I don’t “get” a book that others love. Of course, The Lowland is the latter for me. I have no understanding why people love it nor why it made not only the Booker short list but the NBA long list as well. I do not begrudge Lahiri’s spot on these two literary prize lists, yet it just doesn’t feel like a Booker winner to me. Lahiri’s writing style is vanilla – and too choppy. There were no instances that I felt like going back and rereading a beautiful passage. Her character building was lacking in my opinion and I just did not care for the characters as others seemed to. The ending wasn’t all that surprising, okay, I did not figure it out, but it wasn’t as shocking as the ending of the 2012 Booker winner, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. Finally, I think there are other novels on the list more deserving (coughing discretely into my hand “theluminaries” cough).
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and longlisted for this year’s National Book Award. It is currently available in from Bloomsbury in the UK and Knopf in the US.
Penny and Michelle are both founding members of the BookerMarks project, which is a yearly collaboration between 8 bloggers who shadow the Man Booker Award and try to predict the winner. So far, they’re 1-for-1.