I am hoping to ‘fillet a stone’ in this review, and separate Lahiri’s writing from her story in this, her latest novel. Lahiri has lavish gifts when it comes to writing. Although Interpreter of Maladies won so many awards and gave her encouragement perhaps, I preferred another book of linked stories, Unaccustomed Earth, for its deep insights, faultless language, and for peeling the veil from a culture I can never hope to know intimately.
The writing in this, her latest novel, was, I thought, workmanlike and studious--like her characters in a way, scientists and PhDs, both. And it was too long and wordy, like a dissertation maybe. Regarding the story, for me it held little drama, and seemed a long litany of history for not-so-interesting characters. I did get a sense of Indian culture as scrappy and vibrant at the same time it is smothering and crushing. I do think Lahiri did a good job with the expatriate/immigrant experience—that sense of dislocation and living at a remove. I also thought the inter-national love affair between Holly and Subhash in Rhode Island rang true, neither of the lovers imagining for a moment their families would accept ‘a foreigner’ and they themselves lack the experience and confidence to transgress the life expected of them. And Lahiri gave us some nice images: “[Bela, the baby] breathed with her whole body…like an animal.”
Though I am not intimately familiar with Indian lifestyle practices, Lahiri did have me trying to manage feelings of outrage and disbelief about the way Subhash withheld Bela’s parentage from her, despite Bela’s difficult time adjusting when her mother did a runner. It is difficult for me to empathize with an educated man (and woman) of any nationality who watch with equanimity their family disintegrate and do nothing to prevent it, even when the mental health of the child in their care is at stake. I’m sure there are folks out there that act this way, but when Lahiri says Bela came back and thanked her father for not telling her he was her stepfather, I thought perhaps we stepped off the reality train. Maybe it is so—they are Lahiri’s characters after all—but it all felt a little far out there to American me.
Another way to look at this book is that it is unadorned, cruel, and often boring--just like life itself. Anita Chaudhuri, an editor at Psychologies magazine, tweeted of the book: "One of the bravest books I've ever read, no tricks, no jokes, just life." I guess that is true, too. It may not be what we want to hear or how we want to live, but there it is, like it or not.
This book was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, which was awarded instead to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. It is also a finalist for 2013 The National Book Award for fiction.
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