The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
When I was given The Lowland as a secret Santa gift from a fellow bookseller, I was a little apprehensive that I wouldn't like it, knowing little to nothing about the author, and already having a bookshelf full of to-read books. Luckily, the pressure of it being a book bought for me by a coworker, pushed it to the top of my list.
This National Book Award Finalist explores the family connection between those who immigrate from India to the United States and the people they leave behind. It starts with the sons of a well-to-do family in Calcutta, and spans the course of four generations. The initial focus in Lahiri's book is one of conflict against a repressive government that most US readers will know nothing about as it takes place in the shadow of the Vietnam War in our own history. One brother joins the revolution to fight against the oppressive regime, while the other pursues higher education in the United States, not knowing if they will ever see each other again. The choices made during this time shape the family into a fracture across continents.
Lahiri does not use quotation marks in this book, which is a surprise at first. As her rich description and the voice of the characters washes over the reader though, the authority and tone of each speaker never leaves a line of dialogue in question. She builds meticulously on her details, bringing back what family tells are passed down and highlighting it when generational habits are broken.
The theme of what happens to home when it becomes a place you can no longer go back to fascinates the reader, and the questions of what makes a family and what traditions are worth keeping are ones almost any reader will be able to relate to and understand. Definitely a good choice for our interesting times.
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
My first exposure to Jhumpa Lahiri was reading her book, The Lowland. I was drawn to her direct writing style and the way she understood loneliness and I knew I had to pick up a copy of her latest memoir on writing.
In Other Words is a dual language book with the original Italian on one side and the English translation on the other. Lahiri commits to writing this book in Italian, not even translating it into English because of her love bordering on obsession with Italian. Her goal since moving to Italy has been to use that as her primary correspondence, only using English to communicate with family and business associates who don't speak her adopted language. The way she speaks of the culture she now inhabits will inspire a familiar ache in any writer who has been abroad.
In Italian her writing style becomes unembellished and vulnerable, unable to hide herself from the reader in this new language. She focuses on how it's foolish for people to pursue being exactly like the greats, who she names as Ferrante, Shakespeare, Dante, and Cervantes. Taking it even further, Italian reveals her own flows and she says “The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.” Her message to break down the subterfuge and indirect asides used by so many writers gives the reader a path to focus on the grit and reason behind the writing.
For those who saw too much reassurance in Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, In Other Words turns the focus to how the journey to find home and a place to belong sometime is still worthwhile even if it's ultimately futile.
This is a delightful quick read written with a compassionate understanding of self. In Other Words helps explore why we write and what drives us to explore new heights.
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