Tag Archives: New York Times

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Final Lowland cover.inddI read some Jhumpa Lahiri short stories as an undergrad, in my Contemporary British Fiction course.  Her writing style is so beautiful and simple and easy to comprehend–people who write know how difficult it is to produce a simple and effective sentence, without endless clauses and commas. I tend more toward the maximal than the minimal, but I wish I could embrace and produce brevity the way Lahiri does. I haven’t read her other novel, The Namesake, but I did see the movie with Kal Penn, and I remember liking it.  I may need to read the novel because I also enjoyed this book. Lahiri was born in London to parents from West Bengal, but moved to the US with her parents when she was still quite young. She has a unique perspective as an immigrant and emigrant of 3 countries and that is reflected in her writings. She lives in Rome now, but this particular novel is all about India and the US.  It was shortlisted for the Man Booker last year, which is how it ended up on my Christmas list.

I have a tough time with the sort of books that span lifetimes.  This is one of those.  We start with two young brothers, growing up near Calcutta: Subhash and Udayan. By the end of the book, focus has shifted to one of their grandchildren. I’ve read other books that cover this much of a life, or a few lives, and I find it difficult. When you zoom out so far on someone’s life, it is much harder to find the point, the lesson, the change they endure during the story.  It is undoubtedly closer to real life, but I don’t read fiction for real life. I read fiction because at the end of a book there is a sense of order and satisfaction. There was a problem, the person learned to conquer it and then they did.  It doesn’t have the same, or sometimes any, meaning if we follow them for another 40 years of their lives. Often these books are more about the gradual change from bright and energetic youth to tired and sad decline.  And I don’t like that either, because I’d like to think there was some hope for happiness once I’m over 40 or 50.  So that aspect of this book was not my favorite.

But it was beautifully written, very clear and concise and well done.  I believe the slow decline, the overtaking quietness that consumes almost all of these characters stems from one event. A death that no one in the book recovers from. Everything from that point on can be categorized as a ripple effect. The family never recovers, the children inherit secrets and pain that lasts a few generations.

I am pretty woefully ignorant of Indian culture, let me say that straight from the beginning.  Unlike in London, there aren’t large populations of Indian/subcontinent immigrants in the US. There are pockets here and there, much more where I live now than when I lived in the Midwest, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as in the UK. But I have read several books now that focus on immigrant families coming into the UK and the US.  I’ve read Zadie Smith–White Teeth and On Beauty–Salman Rushdie–the Satanic Verses–and now the Lowland. I can’t help but notice similarities.  Most obviously, there are pairs of men, usually related, usually very different (Subhash and Udayan in the Lowland, Magid & Millat in White Teeth, Farishta and Chamcha in the Satanic Verses). Secondly, someone is usually involved in academia or science (Subhash and Gauri in the Lowland, the Belsey family in On Beauty, Magid and Marcus Chalfen in White Teeth), and their counterpart is usually involved in politics or religion. I am not an immigrant, and have never lived in a culture different enough to worry about assimilation.  I don’t think learning to stand on the right and walk on the left in the U.K. exactly qualifies me to discuss the immigrant experience. But, I am pretty good at empathy, and I think I can see a lot of reasons why these relationships keep coming up.  Being an immigrant or of dual ancestry means that you are always considered two different people. An Indian man in London may seem very Indian to his fellow Brits (of a more Anglo descent), but he will seem very British if he returns to India. It’s like the god Janus, one face looking forward and one looking back.  These novels tend to have a character that embraces completely the new culture, and another that leans in the opposite direction and clings to tradition, to the country they consider their true home. In the Lowland, Subhash returns to India with his daughter, and though both her parents are Indian, little Bela cannot stomach the same food, water, or sun that her mother and father grew up with. Life in the US has made her softer than life in India would have. She can’t go back ‘home’ and be with her ‘native’ culture. It implies that immigration is a non-reversible event; once you go, you can’t come back.

There are two events in this book that shape every other character and every other moment.  The death of one of the brothers, and the abandonment of Bela by her mother.  The reviewer for the New York Times found real fault with this event and its aftermath, saying Ms. Lahiri never manages to make this terrible act — handled by Gauri with cruelty and arbitrary highhandedness — plausible, understandable or viscerally felt. Why would Gauri regard motherhood and career as an either/or choice? Why make no effort to stay in touch with Bela or explain her decision to move to California? Why not discuss her need to leave her marriage and her child with her husband?  

I didn’t have an issue with this, because I empathized with Gauri. She didn’t want a child. She couldn’t accept this child in particular, because of what and who it represented.  A child is a massive never-ending responsibility, looking for love and knowledge and entertainment and safety, looking to you every second of the day. I don’t want kids. Not at all. I’m not up for that kind of commitment. Having a pet is the most amount of commitment I can deal with, and I like pets a lot more than I like kids. So for Gauri to run away from this massive commitment, this project that would take up at least 20 years of her life, always reminding her that she lacked freedom and she lacked her own life…I can empathize.  Luckily for me, we have contraceptives and I don’t have to have kids. But I can’t say I find it hard to believe the what or why here. I can imagine the fear that would come from looking at this little person that depends on you for everything, and instead of finding the love and dedication growing inside yourself, you see something akin to a cage.  Like I said, I don’t want kids.

My only real problem with the book is the ending.  After we see the characters age and procreate, and then their child procreates, after all this, and in the last few pages of the book, we are thrust back to moments before the death, from the point of view of the about-to-be-deceased. Ending it that way almost acted as the opposite of closure.  Questions and ideas that had been settled in the denouement of natural events, were re-arranged and had to be re-considered.  And then the book was over.  It robbed me of a sense of ending, and it left a bad (mental) taste in my mouth. I’m not sure why she chose that ending, but I wish it had been left out. I suppose perhaps the point in showing the death again was to solidify the idea that this one death was a spear in the side of everyone mentioned in the book, and continued to affect them far after it occurred and even after it was forgotten. It affected 4 generations of characters, and would continue to affect them. That’s why it’s there at the end, I suppose.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

9781250024176I’ve been considering reading this book for over a year–since it won the 2012 Man Booker Prize.  I base most reading decisions on the Man Booker prize winners.  I read the first novel in this trilogy, Wolf Hall about a year ago.  I wasn’t overly fond of it, I’ll be honest.  For one thing, the 3rd person narration is abnormal.  Thomas Cromwell narrates the story, but his thoughts and his words are always described with ‘he’ or ‘his’.  It doesn’t say “Thomas Cromwell went to see the King.”  It says “he went to see the king”.  Sometimes, when Cromwell is alone, this is no large problem.  But the majority of the characters, just like the majority of people of note in the 16th century, are men.  So you get a lot of sentences like ‘he said to him’.  Confusing.  Sometimes, you can follow it.  Other times, not so much.  Mantel occasionally clarifies, but she does so in a strange way.  As the New York Times described it, “Where necessary, “Bring Up the Bodies” helpfully deploys the phrase “he, Cromwell,” dispelling a lot of syntactic confusion.” I find this to be rather stupid, to be honest.  If you’re going to say ‘he took the pen; he, Cromwell’, why not just say ‘Cromwell took the pen’?!?!  this ‘he, Cromwell’ rubbish is very tedious.  On the other hand, sticking to the ‘he’ pronoun does create a unique reading experience. This is a subject simultaneously so familiar (who hasn’t heard of Henry VIII and his many wives?) and simultaneously very alien (who can comprehend life in 1536 as readily as they can comprehend in 1936, or even 1836?).  So that unique reading experience achieved through the pronoun use in some ways adds to the feeling of delving into another time, another frame of mind, another way of organizing the world.  In conclusion, I’m on the fence about the whole pronoun issue.  I hated it in the first book, but it was far more easy to follow in the second.

Bring Up The Bodies was, in almost all respects, an easier and breezier book.  Not as demanding, not as tiring, more enjoyable.  Shorter, faster, and (I think), better.  The New York Times said that it’s less surprising, and that Cromwell sinks in our estimation from the first book to the next.  I don’t think I agree.  He was never particularly high in my estimation, nor do I think Cromwell is the type to care. He’s a practical person, a realist, and not in the business of charming anyone.

In the second book, he is the same person, with the same ruthlessness and terrifying, cold pragmatism.  The difference is his mission.

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In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s mission was to make it possible for the king to marry Anne Boleyn.  He sees Cardinal Wolsey, his mentor and friend, fall from power into disgrace and death–and don’t think he’s ever going to forget those that made this happen–but he also uses the changing tide to his own advantage.  Cromwell assists the king in every possible way to get his marriage to Katherine annulled, and to make way for his marriage with Anne.  This means reformation of the church (which allies with Cromwell’s personal beliefs), and it means being allied with the Boleyn family.  But his mission is to get the king married to Anne, and he succeeds.

In the second book, Cromwell’s mission is to get rid of Anne so that the king can marry Jane Seymour (not the actress from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman).  Though they may seem the same, the situations are different.  Anne will not accept an annulment, she is not the type of woman to go quietly.  She’s more like Cromwell.  Henry is so angered and upset with her, with her inability to give him a son, with her emotional trickery and her lack of proper obsequiousness, he begins to suspect her of witchcraft.  He has been ensnared by her, and has been taken out of favor in God’s eyes.  His thoughts turn to plain, shy, virginal Jane Seymour. She is the antithesis of Anne in nearly every way.  Henry wants Anne to never have happened.  At first, it seems an annulment might be enough this time, as it was before, but no.  He wants her to never have existed. She needs to be dead, if he’s going to be happy and fortunate again.

Cromwell does his best to make the king happy.  That’s the same in book one and book two. It’s the king, and what he wants, that shift to a much darker place. His darker nature is reflected in his body, fat and sweaty, with a recurring wound to his leg.  He is turning into an embarrassment, where he was once an astonishingly bright and energetic figure. Accordingly, this book ends, not with a happy couple and a fortuitous baby bump, but with the public execution of Anne Boleyn, and the 4 men accused of sleeping with her. With a downturn, a hint of things to come.

Ah, but it’s not just Henry that goes darker and meaner.  Cromwell handpicks the four men who will be killed, and, shocking coincidence, they are the four men who publicly mocked Cardinal Wolsey before his death.  His motive, revenge, is incredibly clear.  Another man is rumored to have slept with Anne, but he is Cromwell’s friend, and is spared a conviction.  Free to go. I don’t deny that revenge is his motive, but I do think that the king’s changes have given Cromwell the opportunity to act on both of their worst instincts.  If the king were magnanimous and forgiving, Cromwell would find lesser punishments for his rivals.

We also see an older Cromwell, a more tired and less ruthless version of the man we learned of in Wolf Hall.  A few sections stuck out to me, so much that I dog-eared the pages to reference them later. He ‘falters’ in his course, as he describes it, when feelings overcome him.  He hides it.  But he ‘did falter, but no one knows it’, no one saw him walk away from Weston’s interrogation.  No one saw him when ‘Anne laid her hand on my arm and asked me what I believed in my heart’.  He feels the weight of his own hypocrisy, and his corruption. At one point, he compares his power struggles with a dance.  ‘He has spun his enemies to face him, to join him: as in a dance. He means to spin them away again, so they look down the long cold vista of their years: so they feel the wind, the wind of exposed places, that cuts to the bone: so they bed down in ruins, and wake up cold.’

That is an incredibly detailed thing to wish on your enemies. And only someone who has been forced to do the same, in his own life, would know the pain that would come with those circumstances.  As someone gets older, the value of warmth and comfort are more important, and the unstoppable threat of negative thoughts are less avoidable.  Though Cromwell has sent many a man (and woman) to their deaths, that paragraph is the scariest he’s ever seemed.

But he’s also pensive and emotive, and full of a strange wisdom. This paragraph cut my heart when I read it.  One of the characters claims he will ‘die of grief’.  Cromwell shakes his head and says the man will live.  ‘He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone’

My dog died a few weeks ago, just as I was reading this book.  I’m a wreck.  When I read that paragraph, I recognized the same feelings, the same sighs and same anger and slow bitter resignation that I feel now.  That I know I’ll feel again, the next time I lose something I love.

I connected with this book pretty significantly, and my reading experience was a good one. I’m glad I slogged through Wolf Hall, and I’m even more glad I decided to read the sequel.