14 September 2013

The Lowland

This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books.

It is one of those Biblical stories—two brothers, so similar and still so different, connected by a bond that survives separation and devastation. Easily one of the year’s most anticipated novels, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013, is a sweeping family saga, not unlike her earlier novel, yet still vastly different.

Subhash and Udayan Mitra are brothers and best friends growing up in Calcutta around the time of Indian Independence. But they find themselves drawn apart by differing ideology. Udayan’s Communist sympathies align him with the Naxalbari movement of the 1960s, while Subhash, less given to such political fervour, moves away to a tranquil life of academia in a quiet corner of the United States. But tragedy in Udayan’s life leads Subhash to be inextricably connected to his brother’s impassive wife, Gowri, in ways he could never have foreseen. When Udayan is brutally murdered in the lowlands outside their family home in Calcutta, Subhash breaks ties with his family and marries his brother’s pregnant widow. Back in the USA, Gowri and Subhash attempt to make a family with the daughter that Gowri now gives birth to. The ties of parenthood bind her more to her uncle-turned-stepfather than to her own mother, and she is not to know of her true parentage until much later. Meanwhile, Gowri is tormented by the dark secrets of her life with Udayan, and finds it difficult to break free of his hold on her. Across continents and coasts, the book comes full circle in its final bend, with a surge of warm-hearted aspiration.

Lahiri’s most endearing characters have always been her quiet, thoughtful men. In The Lowland, Subhash Mitra, like Ashoke Ganguli of The Namesake, forms the introspective centre of the story. But Gowri, the woman who infiltrates his life in so many ways, becomes the real talking point very soon; her decisions, written at first as cold, unfeeling choices, shape the plot and its most lingering moments with pensive dolour. She is most at home in solitude, habitually locking herself up with books and research, seeking out the reticent spaces that give her peace.
Between Subhash and Gowri, who are as fire and ice, grows a chasm that is never quite bridged, but is slowly filled and deepened by the hope of a new generation. This, really, is the magic of Lahiri: always, from the slumped heart of sorrow and pain grows the prospect of silent, unexpected joy, and it changes our way of reading her.
In the years that the novel spans, a family grows and matures and lives are altered heavily by the revolutions that take the world by its throat. This, though, is a tale that studies the impact of individual choices, a psychologically perceptive and even-handed record of a tumultuous era. It is almost a series of nuanced portraits of men and women torn apart by their differences, yoked together by their vulnerabilities. It is closest to her most recent collection, Unaccustomed Earth, in its haunting, visceral depiction of human relationships and the poignant aftershocks of grief.
Lahiri remains the master of restraint. But where, in her previous works, her controlled prose was charged with emotion that lay siege with bittersweet suddenness, The Lowland gives way to none of this. The book has a more glacial, impersonal style, often reading like an objective newscast, matter-of-fact and unaffectedly stoic.
At times, the toneless narrative can be maddening. Several sentences summarise with transitional phrases: “And so she felt antagonized by a man who did nothing to antagonize her, and by Bela, who did not even know the meaning of the word.” Others narrate from moment to moment with annotations: “He hadn’t accompanied him to the rally, nor had Udayan asked him to come. In this sense they had already parted.”
The dry reportage has its own version of detached beauty. The most morally ambiguous decisions of her characters are treated non-judgementally, as mere plot points, festering delicately under several layers of melancholy.

Restraint, though, does not mean a lack of detail. With Lahiri, restraint lends itself to extraordinary complexity and trenchant insight. The book is dense with imagery, lushly exquisite and stylistically precise. Her taut turn of phrase and her economy with words somehow collide with the level of specificity she is able to infuse into her writing: "Nor was her love for Udayan recognizable or intact. Anger was always mounted to it, zigzagging through her like some helplessly mating pair of insects."

The combination makes for a work of unusual poise; it is sophisticated, self-assured, and eloquent, and ultimately a book with the sort of integrity that makes Lahiri one of our greatest living storytellers.

01 September 2013

The Hired Man

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna develops in the slow, haunting way of an urban gothic psychological thriller. There’s a sleepy, mysterious village with a dark secret, into which stumbles a cheery English family. The story is told, sometimes bleakly, sometimes wryly, by a brooding, Byronic hero with a shadowy history. The book sets a measured Hitchcock-style pace, never revealing too much, littering the setting with murky clues, swinging with delicate, practised ease from past to present. When the pieces fall into place, the conclusion offers no relief. It is cold, lurching, and vividly disturbing.

And yet, the premise is simple enough. Laura and her family come to Gost, a little hamlet in the Croatian countryside, in search of pastoral simplicity. Laura is here to restore an abandoned house that she has just bought, and has her two reluctant teenagers in tow. The local handyman, Duro Kolak, who is the book’s sad-eyed narrator, helps Laura through the process. And as he does, the small village’s troubled story unravels.

There are many, many metaphors for restoration and rehabilitation in Forna’s tale, some more obvious than others. An old mosaic is discovered and touched up, an old car is repaired, a house is mended. Each is a protracted process, a way of healing and returning. But if the analogies are painfully unambiguous, they are also unsettling. Fragments of the mosaic are pieced together just as scraps of memory and history interlock to reveal a troubled narrative. When the ruined plaster that obscures the mosaic is uncovered, it is simply painted over once again by local vandals, as if to say that the anguish of the past is best left concealed.

This is not an easy book to read. It is a harrowing story, not so much of forgiveness, but of painful forbearing, of how we learn to live with our enemies, the people who have caused us the most grievous harm, how we exist and work side-by-side with them because the new ways of the world favour forgetfulness of past sins. We see this every day in the communally charged affairs of our own country – men and women who live with their rapists and work with the murderers of their families – and all we long to do is forget and move on, brush their injustices away in favour of the pale edges of convenience.

The conflicts that shattered the former Yugoslavia into shards so broken that they may never be mended are described only briefly by Forna, whose precise and deliberate ways of creating atmosphere are chilling even as they leave much to the imagination. The lethal aftermath of civil and ethnic conflict is seen in the village of Gost, whose inhabitants are not young enough to have never experienced the betrayals of their land and neighbours and not old enough to have outlived the consequences of these many betrayals.

Laura arrives in Gost with the privileged innocence of the Western world, wanting to find fine cheese and idyllic charm. But Gost’s apparent rusticity is inscrutable in alarming ways: “Sixteen years ago we endured months of candlelight. When it was finally over and we could turn the lights on, some of us were already used to the dark but for others nothing less than one hundred watts would do. I’ve heard that over at the hotel the passing tourists complain about the lighting in their rooms, in the foyer, but most of all in the restaurant. They say it’s too bright, they want something called ambience. The tourists can’t understand and nobody wants to explain, so they lie and say that people here like to see their food.”

Forna’s writing has a layered, nuanced way of texturing the very lack of communication with deep-seated meaning. The collective pain of the villagers repeatedly manifests itself through their inhospitable response to outsiders and their unspoken resentment towards each other. The trauma of their past has been shoved under the carpet, but it is a sentient, breathing thing, waiting to resurface bitterly into Gost’s overwrought present day. And when it does, the village must call upon its every strength to contain its shuddering ferocity.