Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Lowland by Juhmpa Lahiri

Udayan and Subhash are brothers born fifteen months apart in the 1950s, in Calcutta. Their childhoods are happy and unremarkable and they are close. In their late teens they develop different interests, with Subhash concentrating on his studies and Udayan becoming active in an emergent political movement – the Naxalites. What follows is a family saga of profound sadness. This review is impossible to write without spoilers.

Udayan, who is exciting, passionate but selfish, marries a woman of similar political outlook called Gauri, and becomes increasingly involved with his friends and comrades, working towards a Maoist revolution. In the meantime, dull and staid Subhash goes to Rhode Island in the USA to pursue his studies in environmental science, eventually becoming an academic.

Udayan is killed one day by police, in front of his parents and Gauri, who, unbeknownst to anyone, is carrying their baby. Subhash comes back to Calcutta and decides to marry Gauri and take her back to the US to save her from the life of a widow with his parents (who, in their grief resent her and show her no warmth) and also to raise her and her brother’s child as his own. Their façade of a marriage unsurprisingly fails and Gauri, who by now is an academic in philosophy, ends up abandoning both Subhash and her daughter Bela when Bela is 10 years old. The book went downhill from here.   

All the characters in this book seem unable to get past their past. And this ruined the book for me. Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favourite authors, but this was a disappointment. I enjoyed the book until very near the end. I think I just got tired of the characters’ complete sadness, coldness and apparent inability to change. Lahiri’s characters are normally more complex and even a little more likable than the ones in The Lowland. I tried very hard to like Gauri and succeeded at times, but most of the time was just appalled at how lonely her existence was (self-imposed), and how cold and callous she was. Subhash was dull – probably the most believable of the characters. Bela also lacked any warmth and was, surprisingly for Lahiri, a bit of a caricature with her tattoo, nomadic lifestyle and ‘don’t-let-anyone-near-me’ approach to life.

I have read reviews of Lahiri’s work that suggest she should stick to short stories. Certainly the most memorable of her work I have read is a collection of short stories called Unaccustomed Earth, which is one of my all-time-top-ranking reads. The Namesake was good, but Unaccustomed Earth was better. The Lowlands did not quite satisfy the requirements of a fulfilling and engaging sage because the characters were too static and too sad. The book nevertheless contained the author’s trademark style of placid steadiness and evocative description, which kept me turning the pages. There was, however, a little bit too much description in some parts and towards the end I was a little bored.

Lahiri’s broad knowledge of a number of different things such as Rhode Island, earth sciences and India’s political history is very impressive. A lot of research has clearly gone into writing this book. One of the most interesting parts of this book for me was learning about the Naxalite movement, about which I only have minimal knowledge. It was bizarre to imagine violent political clashes occurring in the beautiful and picturesque area of Darjeeling, where I holidayed early this year (and was surprised at the heavily militarised presence…I understand this better now).

The Carpathians by Janet Frame

I always feel a bit dumb when I read Janet Frame. I feel like I am missing the main message—as though I’m really only scratching the surface and missing out on all the layers underneath of rich and complex meaning.

The Carpathians is a story about language. I think it’s a story about the power of language and the importance of words and language. Mattina is an independently wealthy New Yorker with a penchant for ‘learning’ about other cultures. By this I don’t mean she is an anthropologist (although she might think she is). She will go and ‘live amongst’ people from a culture different to hers for a couple of months in order to ‘get to know’ the people. She also has a habit of acquiring real estate. These two pastimes hint at an absence in her; in her life, in her heart. But there is nothing in her life lacking. She wants for nothing at all. She has so much money that she is able to buy an island; she is married to a man who she loves and who loves her; she has a son and at some stage in her life also enjoyed a lover.

Her yearning to learn about other cultures takes her to Puamahara, a small town in New Zealand. She is on a quest to discover more about the legend of the Memory Flower and Galaxy Star. She moves into Kowhai Street (we learn at the end of the story it is pronounced Korfai!) and over the course of two months gets to know her neighbours. They are a pretty standard bunch—elderly widows, young families and the like. They all claim to be from somewhere else (not here), leading Mattina to sense an atmosphere of impermanence and rootlessness.

From early in her stay in Kowhai Street, Mattina feels a strange presence in her rented house but learns to live with it. One night towards the end of her stay something quite horrifying happens. And I’m not entirely sure about the symbolism of it. It’s something to do with the disappearance of language and memory.

As a writer, Janet Frame’s raison d’étre is based on words, language and memory, or the memory that words and language create/express. So she herself is perhaps in this book, maybe in Mattina’s husband, or the Dinny Wheatstone, the slightly unhinged ‘imposter’ author. Matina’s husband Jake was a writer who wrote a bestseller in his early 20s and then struggled for 30 years to write his next. It was Matina’s son, John Henry, who wrote a book 30 years later, also in his early 20s.

I enjoyed getting to know the characters in this book and I also found the story intriguing. A couple of times, especially towards the end, I thought, ‘I’ll have to read this again because I don’t know what she’s trying to get at here’. I still don’t fully understand what the Memory Flower or the Galaxy Star is. Postmodernists would love this.