The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland was the SBC selection for May 2017. Visit the SBC Page (linked above) for more books we’re reading/have read.


This novel took me forever to read. I started with the audiobook on May 5, but couldn’t get into it. Then I got the paper book thinking that maybe that would grab me better, but still I labored. The writing is beautiful, spare, poignant in its simplicity, but before I was fifty pages in, I decided to quit reading. I set the book on the kitchen table, and “Pulitzer Prize” glared up at me from the cover, so I made myself open the book again and keep going.

Despite the writing, despite the characters so realistically flawed, despite the kind of pacing that I usually love, which allows me to luxuriate in the language, the book remained a slog for me until the last page. Maybe the plot is just too much like real life: slow and accidental, full of poor choices and in the end meaningless, or at least pointless.

The “Pulitzer Prize” written on the cover on its own wouldn’t have carried me through the novel. Four sentences (or two sentences and two fragments) a little more than a hundred pages in gave me the boost necessary to keep me reading:

“Though he looked like any other Bengali he felt an allegiance with the foreigners now. He shared with them a knowledge of elsewhere. Another life to go back to. The ability to leave.” (113)

Although my life experiences are dramatically different from Subhash’s, I could relate to the experience of being in a place where so many others feel at home, surrounded by people for whom the possibility of living anywhere else simply doesn’t exist. For me, the possibility of leaving the place where I am is not only a possibility; it seems almost an inevitability. But since I’m not at home where I am anyway and never have been, this brings me comfort. It’s the prospect of staying in one place that’s unsettling to me.

I know this isn’t quite what Subhash is feeling in this moment. He’s not a perpetual stranger but rather has returned home a stranger because circumstances have cut him loose from the bonds that held him to that place, to those people. Even though the situation was different, those sentences spoke to me nevertheless and kept me reading.

However, the promise of those sentences was never realized for me. I don’t regret reading the whole novel, but I probably could have stopped at any point and been no worse off.

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