This was a very pretty book, though sad. Jhumpa Lahiri tells the tale of two brothers set against the backdrop of Calcutta in the 50’s and 60’s. Subhash and Udayan are inseparable, born just 15 months apart, coming of age during the Naxalite movement in India. As they grow up they also grow further apart, and eventually Udayan finds himself drawn into the rebellion and becomes a radical communist fighting against poverty, inequality and exploitation. Subhash travels to America to study oceanography in Rhode Island while Udayan begins to distance himself from his parents and even takes a bride for love against their wishes. When Udayan is tragically killed, Subhash travels back to India to attempt to save his widow from a life of misery in the house of his parents, who don’t care for her. The writing was beautiful, though I found the character development to be a bit clinical. Some of the events are unfolded in an out-of-order sequence, particularly the event involving Udayan, and the story also makes fairly large lurches forward in time which lends to a general feeling of disjointedness. It always makes me depressed when a character’s whole life from birth to death can be summed up in one novel, it makes life seem so short, and that is what happens in this book. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and because of these large gaps in time I felt the characters, particularly certain characters, remained somewhat of a mystery when the reader should have known them inside out by the end. I felt a lack of connection, and even a dislike, of Bela, which I think can be attributed to the flatness of her characterization. She is fairly pivotal to the plot, but she feels more like a peripheral player, which bugged me.
I did enjoy the messages Lahiri imbeds in the tale about how motherhood can be a negative experience for some women. Time and time again books and movies show women falling in love with their babies and being elated at the “gift” of motherhood, which can alienate women who don’t identify with those feelings. Is it criminal to become a mother and find yourself unhappy? Is it unforgivable to walk away from a family you find you cannot love? Lahiri writes about these ideas in a thought-provoking way, and I appreciate seeing the other side of the coin. I don’t think it’s fair to villainize women who fail to form emotional attachment to their children. This book speaks a bit to how that lack of attachment can affect children long term, which is what appealed to me most about this story. That, and the fact that it contains a lot of Indian imagery and history, which I also love. Overall I thought it was a good read, but I can see why it did not come out on top (though Luminaries also had trouble with characterization). I’ve now read all 4 of the books written by women that made the short list (leaving 2 written by male authors and pssssht who reads male authors? Ha), and I’d have to say that Ruth Ozeki’s novel was my favourite – sorry Lowland!