Tag Archives: on beauty

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.

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Book Review: NW by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith hasn’t had a new novel since 2005, so I was anxious to read this book.  I read On Beauty for a Contemporary British Fiction course I took at university, and read White Teeth just a few months ago.  I really like her writing style. Similar to Salman Rushdie, who I just read, she teeters on the edge of stream-of-consciousness, without making that annoying jump.  She is playful and engaging, sometimes traditional and sometimes challenging. I always enjoy the process of reading her books.

I have to say, unfortunately, that I was very disappointed with this one.  Maybe my expectations were too high.  After all, I like her writing so I expected to enjoy the writing.  I did enjoy the writing, the word choice, the playfulness, the scavenger hunt of dropped clues that gave hints of context, setting, and time. Her endings were never great, but I still enjoyed her other books.  Plus, as with White Teeth, this novel is set in Northwest London (hence the title), which is where Smith grew up.  It is also where I lived while I was in London.  This shouldn’t particularly matter, but I must admit I get a kick out of reading about characters wandering down Finchley Road or through Hampstead Heath, because I can picture it precisely in my mind.  I lived off of Finchley Road.  That area of London, as Smith herself points out, isn’t mentioned much in the history of English literature.  I’m paraphrasing horribly, but she says something like ‘Occasionally, Dickens would wander into that area, and (as I recently discovered) Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White meandered past the Heath.  It’s different from reading about Regent’s Park or Oxford Street.  It’s not as common and for whatever ridiculous reason, it’s special to me.

So maybe my expectations were just too high.

But the plot!  Her previous books were both well plotted, though the endings were iffy to me.  She doesn’t like to put too neat a bow on her works at the end, because life isn’t like that.  I can respect that.  But the other two novels followed the basic tenets of novel-writing.  This one, not so much.

Most obviously in the form of structure.  There are four parts to this book.  The first is about Leah, a young woman living in a council-provided (i.e. government assistance) flat with her husband.  She is depressed and lonely and being pressured to have a baby she doesn’t want.  She has a dog, Olive.  Spoiler***The dog dies.  Do not read this part while on a train. Part 2 revolves around Felix, a man trying to get and stay clean and improve his life. He has no interaction with Leah or any of the characters previously mentioned.  Part 3 is about Natalie/Keisha, Leah’s oldest friend.  This part is the longest, and it covers a period from the girls’ early childhood through present day.  Natalie/Keisha grows up, becomes a lawyer, gets married, has kids.  She seems to have it together from the outside, but up close she is a total mess.  Part 4 weaves the other parts together, sort of.  It’s not wrapped up much at all, and I was left with a lot of questions.  Smith doesn’t lay everything out for you, and that’s fine.  But by the end, I was wondering why we were given this glance into Felix’s life, especially considering what happened to him later.  And why did that happen to him? Since I’m given an intimate look at his life, I feel I should be able to answer it. But I can’t.

There’s also the actual structure, as in the paragraphs and chapters themselves.  Part 1 is Leah’s world, and the narration of her thoughts is told in traditional paragraphs. Dialogue, on the other hand is inset and bolded, single spaced.  Maybe this signifies the fact that her obvious depression means she is swallowed up by her internal thoughts and conversations with others take up less of her mental space.  Interesting idea, but hard to read, to be honest.  Parts 2 and 4 are the most traditional and easiest to read for that fact.  Part 3, Natalie/Keisha’s story is the strangest.  Each little segment of her story (usually 1-3 paragraphs) is told in a numbered sub-chapter, and there are over 180 of them. In them are sometimes little clues to tell you how old Natalie is, and what year it is.  It might say ‘this is the year everyone started saying …’ and you remember (if you’re old enough) that it was the mid-nineties.  Often the title of the sub-chapter is the key to its meaning and place in time.  I have a hard time reading titles–they tend to just not register with my brain.  So I would read the paragraph, and then if it didn’t make sense, go back and reread the chapter.  One chapter was about a musician dying and teenagers being devastated. I looked up at the title to see it was called Nirvana.  Ah, Kurt Cobain then.  early ’90s.  Another sub-chapter was about an incredibly gifted British singer, a woman with remarkable talent.  Title was ‘Beehive’.  This took me a minute, but of course, Amy Winehouse.  It’s almost like a game, a scavenger hunt.  If you were alive, you can piece together the slang or the events that are dropped surreptitiously into the mix and figure out where the story is in chronology.  I enjoyed this part, like a puzzle.  But I found that I was enjoying the game more than the story.

Smith hasn’t lost her ability to write, in any way shape or form. There’s beauty in all her writing, and there’s a fun in it that you won’t find in most writers of ‘literary fiction’. What I will say is that she’s taken another step toward being too-experimental to be comprehensible (to my limited abilities, anyway).  She’s venturing out of the Beatles and into the Plastic Ono Band, and if she continues, I’m not sure I can follow her.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

I just finished this novel yesterday. I was excited to read it because I love Zadie Smith. I read On Beauty during a Contemporary British Lit class a few years ago and really enjoyed it. Smith is a great writer, and has the ability to combine snarky humor, some really complex themes, and and beeeautiful prose. After reading this, I have a serious girl crush on her. This was even better than On Beauty.

White Teeth is a really unique novel, in my opinion. Or, unique for this century. In a way, the book is really Dickensian. Let me explain. There are dozens of characters, a lot of which are related. There are characters from diverse social backgrounds and from different countries (which is I think the modern equivalent of Dickens’ habit of having lowly orphans rubbing shoulders with rich gentlemen). There are presumed-dead characters who return years and years later to be important plot points.

I know that Smith is a fan of late Victorian literature, because On Beauty was based loosely on E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. So this can’t just be my imagination.

The book is hard to summarize because there are so many characters, but I’ll give it a shot. There are (roughly) three families involved: The Jones’s, the Iqbals, and the Chalfens.

The Jones family: Archie (English), his wife Clara (Jamaican Mormon), their daughter, Irie.

The Iqbal family: Samad (Bangladeshi Muslim), his wife Alsana (Bangladeshi Atheist), and their twin sons Magid (atheist) and Millat (fundamentalist muslim).

The Chalfen family: Marcus (Jewish geneticist), his wife Joyce (waspy as fuck), and their son, Josh.

Confusing enough? It gets moreso. The timeline jumps all over the place, with action taking place in 1907, 1944, 1976, and 1992, plus some bits in between. We spend time with Samad and Archie stationed together in WWII, with Clara’s grandmother who was essentially a slave for an Englishman in Jamaica, but the majority of the action occurs during the adolescences of the children (Irie, Magid, Millat, and Josh).

All of this late 20th century action takes place in North London, in Willesden Green. I lived quite near Willesden Green, so that was fun and familiar for me. The London of the book is sort of its own character, as we see all of these different ethnicities, religions, and ideals coming together in one place. I know America is known as the melting pot and all that, but London is just ridiculous. According to Wikipedia, 13.1 percent of Londoners are of South Asian descent (mostly Indians, but also Bangladeshis and Pakistanis), 10.7% are Black (Black African and Black Caribbean). The wiki also claims that more than 300 languages are spoken in London. And I think some of that is represented in the book–the benefits of having this multicultural existence, but also the extreme difficulties of the immigrant experience and the second generation experience. Obviously, I’m not really in a position to be able to comprehend this fully, but Smith does a good job of making you think about parts of the population you might not normally see/consider on your own. I’ve certainly never spent much time examining the ideas/opinions/reasons of fundamentalists muslim groups.

What I love about Smith is the absolute complexity and believability of all her characters. They sound and seem like people you know, with all the small hypocracies and varied motives that make up a real human being. She captures little moments of truth and purity that are really wonderful to be a part of.

Occasionally, I feel like maybe she takes on too much, that it’s too complicated for me to really take away anything definitive. Similar to real life, in that way. But I never feel like I’ve wasted time reading her books. I love spending time in her world, and I adore her snarky humor.

My only complaint has to be the ending. I’ve heard a lot of writing teachers say that after the climax you should wrap it up as quickly as possible, but this was taking it a bit too far. Between the climax and the end of the book there were only 1-2 pages, and none of it particularly satisfactory. I think this is a trend in literary fiction nowadays. Of course wrapping everything up in a neat bow after spending 400 pages constructing a varied and complex world can seem overly simplistic. Still, the audience needs some sense that they have been along on this story for a reason, and this story is now done. I didn’t get enough of that with the end of White Teeth.