MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The writer Jhumpa Lahiri is having a good month. She has a new novel, "The Lowland," set in India. It doesn't come out in the U.S. until tomorrow, but it's already been nominated for two of the most prestigious literary prizes: The Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award.
Here's Ellah Allfrey with a review.
ELLAH ALLFREY, BYLINE: The story opens with two brothers sneaking into an exclusive golf club. Udayan, the younger brother, is daring. Subash, the older, is more timid. The boys grow up. Their parents dream the contained dreams of all aspiring to the middle class. But Udayan joins the Communist Naxalite Movement. Eventually, he is captured and killed.
There's a poignant scene late in the story when the boys' mother remembers her dead son, and we see the gentle side of the revolutionary. He collected worn-out items, she recalls - old bedding and pots and pans, to distribute to families in slums. But the police called him a miscreant, a boy who did not know right from wrong.
Despite moments of such tenderness, this book is about the unsettling distance that can come between family members. Subhash leaves for school in the U.S. Udayan stays in India and marries an intense, bookish girl named Gauri. But the distance isn't only geographical. Lahiri is writing about what it means to sacrifice love and family for a higher social good, what it costs to insist on personal freedom.
Eventually, the news of his brother's death reaches Subhash. He comes home and makes an unexpected decision. He invites his brother's widow to marry him, to come back to America. Together, they will raise the child she is carrying.
Lahiri writes all this with tightly controlled prose. And she has moments of brilliant clarity and precision. She writes that when Gauri was with her daughter: Even if they were not interacting, it was as if they were one person, bound fast by a dependence that restricted her mentally, physically.
There is dignity and restraint here. But for me, this was also the book's weakness. Too often, the narration felt cold - almost clinical. I wanted to know more about these people, especially Gauri. When she, like Subhash before her, makes a decision that fractures the family, I really struggled to understand her motivation.
Lahiri is an accomplished writer. And though I felt, at times, disappointed, in the end I was sure that there is an important truth here, that life often denies us understanding and sometimes, all there is to hold on to is our ability to endure.
BLOCK: The novel is "The Lowland" by Jhumpa Lahiri, reviewed for us by editor and critic Ellah Allfrey.
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