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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Jhumpa for Jhoy: A New Novel from Lahiri

For number 42 I read a book by one of my favorite authors: Jhumpa Lahiri. I've loved her writing ever since I read the very first story in Interpreter of Maladies, her first collection of short stories. The last story in that superb book, "The Third and Final Continent," is one of my favorite stories of all time. I think what thrills me so about Lahiri's writing is the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of it -- the clarity of her sentences and the incredible human understanding. I also love the tone of so much of her work, the melancholy and loneliness. I find reading her that I often feel sad without knowing exactly why. So much of her work is about disconnection, about the inability to communicate, to feel part of a place and a time. It's a mood that draws me. I love the darkness of it, the beauty and sadness.

The Lowland, her recently-released second novel, is a bigger stretch, a bit of a saga. It covers the lifetimes of two brothers, born 15 months apart in Calcutta, now Kolkata. They are very different as young boys, and their differences grow as they age. The older is responsible, dutiful, cautious. The younger is adventurous, daring, wild. The younger brother falls in with a group of Maoist rebels, an involvement that leads to his death. He leaves behind a pregnant wife. The older brother marries the new widow and brings her to America, where he has been living and getting a PhD. He raises the child as his own, but the marriage, to say the least, is troubled.

Some motivations -- like his impulse to marry the young widow -- are puzzling. He seems powerfully drawn to her, but is it for her own sake, or is it his need to protect the child? Is it out of love for his brother? Or envy? The young widow who becomes his new wife is an unlikable character (not that there's anything wrong with that, some of my favorite characters are the ones I've liked least) but she's also somewhat unknowable. So many of the characters in the book are shielded, even from themselves. Their inability to connect makes the book very sad, and also very moving.

Although I can't say I liked The Lowland as much as I liked Lahiri's short stories, or The Namesake, that's a minute criticism, since I loved those beyond measure. My only, and ongoing, criticism is that I wish she wrote faster.

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