A few years ago, I was on a lovely holiday in southern Spain. We’d clocked up a fair few miles on the rental car, sights had been seen, postcards had been written. For the last week of our break we were staying in a gorgeous hotel with no more detailed plans than to eat our own weight for breakfast, swim enough to work up an appetite for dinner and read away the intervening hours. Except disaster! I ran out of books! What to do, what to do?
The hotel had a small library consisting of books left behind by guests. I have a love/hate relationship with this kind of set-up. Firstly, and always, books! Woo hoo! But someone else’s books. Someone else’s choices. And someone else’s discards. Boo hoo! Who leaves books behind? I have discarded whilst travelling the grand total of one book in my lifetime. (It had been a very bad book and I had been very far away from home in a country with far more interesting local reads to take its place. I still have mixed feelings about having left it behind.) And then, if I take a book from a hotel library but can’t bring myself to leave one in its place, am I morally obliged to return the book before I depart, even if this leaves me midway through a story and potentially without reading material for the flight home? And then looking at the selection – what can I tell about my fellow guests/readers? Who chooses misery memoirs for a sun holiday? Does a Faroese speaker/reader really walk among us? Is he/she only reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for the first time now? Who packed a copy of the Kama Sutra and then left it behind? Had their holiday been very very good or very very disappointing? Did they ever get to enjoy the excellent breakfast buffet?
And then there’s making a choice of what to read. It can take me long enough on a good day to choose my next book. And that’s without having to take into account sunscreen stains, dog-eared pages and cracked spines. But needs must, I suppose!
On the three days prior to my unexpected book famine, I had read The Life of Pi (yes, yes, finally), Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Apologies to all who enjoyed it but I disliked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’m tempted to use stronger language to describe how much it annoyed me but even just typing the title brings back a very strong sense memory of reading it on an incredibly comfortable sun lounger under a parasol of perfect span while eating ice-cream. It’s hard to resurrect true displeasure while remembering chocolate ice-cream, so let’s just leave it at dislike. Anyway, a good friend whose reading opinions I respect had raved about Dragon Tattoo so I did think that maybe I needed to give the series a better go. The hotel library had the third book, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, but not the second. I had no internet access, so no access to Wikipedia spoilers. There was a copy of the second book, The Girl who Played with Fire, in Italian, but I lacked the motivation to either struggle though it without a dictionary or to attempt to engage an Italian speaker in conversation long enough to encourage them to speed-read the book and get back to me with important plot points before siesta. I sent a text message to my friend asking her if it was an unforgivable sin to read the third book without having read the second. Not to be done under any circumstances, she informed me, I’d be cheating myself out a fantastically good read. Consider the Kama Sutra, she said.
So I read The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, didn’t seem to be missing much and literally dozed off during the denouement. Two and a half hours after my book crisis, and here I was again. You’re probably beginning to understand that love/hate thing a little better by now.
But sometime between lunch and late afternoon, something wonderful had happened. A copy of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth had appeared on the shelf. I knew nothing about the author, I had never heard of the book. I took a quick peek – it was not in Italian and it did not come with tasteful-but-thorough illustrations. Excellent.
I loved Unaccustomed Earth. Made up of eight perfectly crafted short stories about the immigrant experience in America, the book was like an unexpected gift at the end of my wonderful holiday. It was such a strange experience to read something that I had selected for purely practical reasons. My slightly-out-of-control home library means that I always have a sizable number of options when it comes to choosing what I’ll read next and the titles I bring on holiday with me have been umm-ed and ah-ed over for months before the final selection is made. I remember beginning the first story in Unaccustomed Earth and thinking ‘So, what’s this about? Let’s give it a go … Hmm, that was a good line … Actually, this writing is pretty good … Who is this Jhumpa Lahiri? … What have I been missing?!’
Unaccustomed Earth put Jhumpa Lahiri on my radar. (Yes, yes, the radar might have needed a tune-up: she had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000 after all!) So I was more than pleased when our book group selected her latest title The Lowland for our most recent read. Nominated for The Man Booker Prize and currently shortlisted for the National Book Awards for Fiction (winner to be announced Nov 20th), The Lowland is Lahiri’s fourth book.
The lowland of the title lies behind the Calcutta home of Subhash and Udayan, brothers around whom the text revolves.
Once […] there were two ponds, oblong, side by side. Behind them was a lowland spanning a few acres.
After the monsoon the ponds would rise so that the embankment built between them could not be seen. The lowland also filled with rain, three or four feet deep, the water remaining for a portion of the year.
The flooded plain was thick with water hyacinth. The floating weed grew aggressively. Its leaves caused the surface to appear solid. Green in contrast to the blue of the sky.
In the humid climate of Calcutta, evaporation was slow. But the sun burned off most of the floodwater, exposing damp ground again.
Certain creatures laid eggs that were able to endure the dry season. Others survived by burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain.
This, the opening section, bears returning to at several points during the novel as it not only offers the clearest representation of the primordial connection between Subhash and Udayan, but also essentially summarises the themes and events of the narrative. The early close relationship of the brothers is tested as each follows their own path. Subhash travels to Rhode Island to complete a PhD, a politicised Udayan remains in Calcutta and becomes involved in the Naxalite rebellion. The brothers are separated by distance and ideology, but also by Subhash’s passivity and Udayan’s fervour. When the results of Udayan’s actions bring Subhash back to Calcutta, the novel widens its span to give voice to several other characters, still focussing on the family’s story but stretching to encompass several generations, each of which experiences their own divergent dry and monsoon seasons.
Discussing the novel in our book group, it was interesting to observe how each reader had their own opinion as to who was the central protagonist. Some felt that Gauri, the bride of both Udayan and Subhash, was written as too progressive for a young woman of her time. Others came to the book expecting a certain ‘flavour’ of Indian fiction and felt disappointed that the American settings of the novel were more vividly drawn than the Indian locales. While none of these elements diminished my enjoyment of The Lowland, the novel failed to appeal to me as much as the short stories of Unaccustomed Earth did. It’s still wonderful to read a novelist in whose style you have complete confidence, but, whereas the short stories felt as if they could each have been a novel, I wonder if I might have more enjoyed an abbreviated version of Subhash and Udayan’s story. Lahiri deserves to be read, but, if you’d like my unprompted advice, reach for Unaccustomed Earth first. And be sure to read it in the sunshine. With ice-cream.
P.S. In case anyone is wondering, yes, I did liberate that copy of Unaccustomed Earth from the hotel library. I couldn’t bring myself to leave any of my books, but I did relieve my travelling companion of his edition of Anthony Beevor’s Berlin: The Downfall 1945, because of, well, reasons, okay? Also, I’m fairly sure he knew the ending.