When Subhash, working as a graduate student in Rhode Island, hears that his brother Udayan has married a local girl, Gauri, back in their native city of Calcutta, he is given only a photograph from which to guess at what she might be like. Receiving this letter shakes Subhash's world; having once been so close to his slightly-younger brother, he finds it hard to believe that Udayan has now married someone he has never heard of, and he is still suspicious of Udayan's carefully-worded letters, which make no mention of his previous involvement with the radical Communist Naxalites. However, as he studies Gauri's photograph, it is impossible for him to predict that this moment will become even more significant in the story of his life then it seems to be at the moment. I spent so long avoiding this warm and captivating novel, and I have to admit that I was wrong; The Lowland is both an engrossing and ultimately a very moving story. Unlike many novels which claim an ambitious scope because they move continents, The Lowland is ambitious in the best sort of way; retaining a very small central cast, it makes its readers truly care about the fates of Udayan, Subhash and Gauri, and it makes their stories unpredictable and yet seemingly inevitable, the way real lives are.
Funnily enough, even as I write about this novel, I find it hard to describe it differently from the reviews that put me off reading it in the first place, and perhaps it just is one of those novels that succeeds through the quality of the writing more than anything else, convincing the reader quietly, bit by bit, that this world is worthwhile. But Lahiri is also gifted with structure, knowing exactly when to fill in the detail and when to pass over years in silence; the ending of this novel, where her chronological tale bends back on itself, will remain with me for some time. As the novel unfolds, it looses itself from being solely about two brothers from West Bengal and speaks to wider themes of ageing and what we choose to do with our lives as we age, and how key choices mould our lives more than we could ever have imagined. Lahiri manages both to tell a strong story and to people it with characters that seem genuinely unpredictable and alive, not locked into a narrative structure, and this is a difficult thing to pull off. Characterisation is also mostly conveyed by the narrative voice, rather than through dialogue or incident, and yet we do feel that we get to know the brothers and their family and not that we've simply been told about them.
Much as I enjoyed this quiet novel, I can't rank it as highly as The Goldfinch or Americanah, even though, as I've already mentioned during my discussion of the shortlist, in many ways both of those novels are deeply flawed. Unlike The Undertaking and A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, The Lowland very much does what I think novels should be doing, and so it's not because of this that it isn't my favourite. Despite its strong narrative, I didn't feel that it ever flared into brilliance, unlike my two favourites - except perhaps in its wonderful ending - and so I never responded to it as deeply. This judgment feels a little unjust, but I think what I'm finding through my reading of this exceptionally strong shortlist is how much, in the end, comes down to feeling.