Book review: The Lowland

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Reading Jhumpa Lahiri Politically

Jhumpa Lahiri does not like to be categorized as an immigrant writer, and her latest novel, The Lowland, is her strongest argument against that pigeonhole. Her discomfort with the label is understandable. After all, she has refreshingly little in common with diasporic writers like Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, or Chitra Divakaruni. Unlike them, she does not brandish her immigrant status as an epistemologically superior vantage point, nor is she anxious to prove herself as a worthy native informant. Her writing is free of the exotic.

A second-generation immigrant, she is firmly grounded in the culture in which she was raised. Yet, growing up with parents for whom home would always be elsewhere, she gets the immigrant experience, especially its melancholia. Of what she knows, she writes masterfully. Indeed, prior to The Lowland, her fiction has been almost exclusively an engagement with immigrant angst in its many hues. For The Lowland, partly set in Calcutta in the sixties and seventies, during the throes of the Maoist Naxalite movement, her ambitions are of a different order. She steps out of the sphere of navel-gazing immigrant fiction and frames the novel with a political movement of which she has no experiential knowledge.

Like Lahiri’s earlier work, The Lowland made a splash as a finalist for both the prestigious Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction, and yet, almost every major review of the novel has remarked on the stagnant quality of the narrative, the flat, detached characters, and the tepid pace. None, however, has identified the cause for this failure in an otherwise extraordinarily skilled writer. The single reason that is sometimes cited is Lahiri’s inability to translate her mastery of the short-story form into that of the novel. But her first novel, The Namesake, does not suffer from this supposed shortcoming, so that explanation remains unconvincing.

Further reading @ Jacobin Magazine

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~ by eneryvibes on 1,July 27, 2014.

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