Having had a joyous experience with the nominees of recent big ticket literary prizes (The Luminaries and The Goldfinch in particular), I returned to the shortlist for last year’s Booker hoping for more of the same.
Of course, the reason I haven’t read them already is because for one reason or another, they didn’t appeal. Too short and biblical sounding (Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary), yet another much hyped African-moving-to-America diaspora experience novel (NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names which to my ignorant summary sounded too much like Ghana Must Go), or a politically driven Indian 1960s drama (Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland.) I had fewest objections to the last, so I embarked on Lahiri’s much praised saga of two brothers and one wife.
It wasn’t to my taste.
My main objection was subjective and stylistic. Lahiri writes a hushed, understated, stripped back prose. Her sentences are brief and simple. Short statement follows short statement chastely down the page. Despite the turbulent events recounted, the two principal characters are quiet and considered. This isn’t to say they don’t have turbulent inner lives, but these are handled with so light a hand that they are barely brushed, and for the sake of the plot major elements which could have perked the story up earlier are reserved until late in the book.
Accomplished? No doubt, though to my mind not of Booker quality. I found the Gauri character cold and unsympathetic, her choice to prioritise her studies above all else never given adequate depth. Subayan was very well explored – Lahiri gets under his skin. His relationship with his daughter is acutely observed, but it is all clipped, held back. The political section, however, is not handled so lightly, and the streams of names never met and actions never seen associated with the Naxalite movement do not engage.
Straight after the reckless exuberance of The Goldfinch, this book seemed pinched and pale. Give me an emotionally incontinent book that lurches around, spilling wine and confidences onto you – not one in the corner, nervously stirring its drink with a straw. Trust your instincts; you know what you like.