In his 2007 history India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha wrote of the militant Indian Maoists who emerged from the conflagration at Naxalbari in 1967: “‘Naxalite’ became shorthand for ‘revolutionary’, a term evoking romance and enchantment at one end of the political spectrum, and distaste and derision at the other.” [pg. 423] In her new novel The Lowland, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, Jhumpa Lahiri plays with precisely these reactions, positing a long tail of consequences whipping outwards from a single Naxalite’s decision to fuse ideological fervour with murderous deeds.
The novel begins with Subhash and Udayan, two brothers living in the Kolkata suburb of Tollygunge during the 1950s. Subhash, the elder by a scant fifteen months, is cautious and prone to hesitation; Udayan “was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colours” [pg. 11]. Despite their differences, the boys are as inseparable as the twin pools wallowing in the topographical hollow of the title: “After the monsoon the ponds would rise so that the embankment built between them could not be seen. The lowland also filled with rain, three or four feet deep, the water remaining for a portion of the year.” [pg. 1] This governing metaphor emphasises not just the occasional indistinguishability of the brothers, but also how the consequences of events have a habit of squatting in our lives long after their initial happening: like water with nowhere to drain away, history lingers in the lives of each of Lahiri’s characters, turning brackish and stagnant.
The first section of The Lowand is consequently bulging with Cliff Notes history, context shoe-horned into a smaller story because without it the personal, soapy tragedies which proceed from Udayan’s inevitable radicalisation make no sense. “It was one of a string of villages in the Darjeeling district,” Lahiri writes of Naxalbari, “a narrow corridor at the northern tip of West Bengal. Tucked into the foothills of the Himalaya’s, nearly four hundred miles from Calcutta, closer to Tibet than Tollygunge.” [pg. 20] We get thumbnails of American history, too, since as Udayan becomes ever closer to his Communist friends, Subhash attends college in the USA. We read of India and of Udayan at arm’s length during this stretch of the novel (difficult because Indian news is not something one will “come across in any newspaper in Rhode Island” [pg. 87]), and Subhash returns to Tollygunge only on the news that his brother is dead, shot by soldiers who have homed in on his Naxalite activities.
Subhash’s life is transformed. Not only has he lost the brother who formed his other half; he feels obliged to marry Udayan’s pregnant wife, Gauri. Yet the only love affair Subhash has undertaken in the US has been desultory and practiced, involving “a woman whose company he was growing used to, but whom, perhaps due to his own ambivalence, he didn’t love” [pg. 77]. According to Subhash’s mother, meanwhile, Gauri has no material instinct or aptitude. We think at first this is spite, but learn as the novel proceeds in elliptic fashion that it is a judgement more or less fair. Indeed, Lahiri eschews the tumescent context of her first hundred pages once Gauri joins Subhash in the USA, dropping us into strings of vignettes separated by often large – and important – chunks of time. Gauri develops a love of academia and philosophy, attending lectures on the quiet; Subhash turns his studies into a career; and the daughter they pretend is his rather than Udayan’s develops a personality at a rapid clip (by the close of the novel she is in her forties).
Lahiri intends to write a family epic alert to the irony of unintended consequences – for her senior college thesis, Bela (long since abandoned by Gauri, now a college professor, and living an itinerant lifestyle with which Subhash is uncomfortable) chooses to study “the adverse effects of pesticide runoff in a local river” [pg. 221], encouraging the reader to recall those pools of water in which, we learn, Udayan attempted to hide before the soldiers found him. All of this has a certain piquancy, and the sad, stilted lives of the main characters do have the power to move: alone and adrift, for instance, Subhash feels “that this arbitrary place, where he’d landed and made his life, was not his” [pg. 253], and we feel for a man at sea in his own cast-off-course life, “linked”, like Gauri, “into a chain she could not see” [pg. 292]. But there’s also an obstinacy to The Lowland – all that insistent commentary, crystalline-but-crafted sentences, and punished protagonists (Gauri’s desolation, in particular, feels simply unfair) – which lends it an air of inflexibility. The Indian sections have a nice ambivalence – at one moment “the sour, septic smell” of Tollygunge [pg. 89], at another the “gestures of hospitality from shopkeepers” [pg. 113] – but, in the way of We Need New Names, the prism of America over-directs the novel’s light away from this valence of detail.
Detail is not something lacking in Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, however. At 832 pages, it is by far the largest book on this year’s shortlist – which might be the reason that I’ve left it last to review. More than any other of its competitors, Catton’s novel is interested in capturing the sense of a single place – not evoking a milieu we view from a more familiar one (Bulawayo, Lahiri, Ozeki), not abandoning specifity (Crace), and not being so fiercely concise that all but the most essential details are pruned away (Tóibín). Catton’s 1860s New Zealand goldrush town of Hokitika emerges as a pungent presence, mapped and – aha – mined thoroughly in the course of what becomes a compendious tour. But what is remarkable – and a little thrilling – about all this detail is that the novel conspires to make it entirely irrelevant.
At yesterday’s Booker Prize shortlist event in Cheltenham, Catton discussed the dual meaning of ‘fortune’: the prospectors of Hokitiki are in search of riches, of course; but fortunes are told as well as found, and in this way The Luminaries – its title, too, offering a dual reference, to the novel’s cast of Hokitika’s leading lights but also to the celestial bodies around which Catton structures her action – considers determinism and destiny. Its first of twelve parts – we note the allusion to the Zodiac – is itself novel-length, introducing us to (again) a dozen characters who are each in some way implicated by circumstance in the death and possible murder of a rich prospector named Crosbie Wells. In the discursive style of the nineteenth-century novels which are read by the characters themselves, Catton introduces us to the most intimate aspects of each man’s self-image. New arrival Walter Moody “had studied his own reflection mutely, and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best” [pg. 4]; shipping magnate Thomas Balfour “liked very much to feel that he was at the vanguard of an era” [pg. 12]; cleric Cowell Devlin “spent the present moment in a state of constant visualisation, conjuring in his mind the untroubled future self he had determined that he would one day become” [pg. 87]. We come to know these characters entirely, and often through the medium of gloriously witty pen portraits.
But Catton’s story lies elsewhere, in a string of coincidences involving none of the characters who feature in this hefty first part – and who consequently never develop from those initial thumbnails. Significantly given the centrality of the moon to the novel’s vision of ‘fortune’, it is two women who emerge in the book’s second half as the engines of the story: the Hokitika prostitute Anna Wetherell and the scheming villainess first introduced to us as Crosbie’s estranged wife, Lydia Wells. That the tart-with-the-heart and the scheming adulteress are both wearied and wearying types is part of Catton’s project. Individuals are not the drivers of this novel’s action. At one point, Balfour’s main client, and a man himself inextricably linked with the vengeful Lydia, opines that, “Only a weak mind puts faith in coincidence” [pg. 63], but in fact life in The Luminaries is governed by it. Characters act not in relation to their painstakingly-rationalised self-perceptions, but to their star signs or schematic roles in the narrative (the corrupted chemist, the tragic Chinaman); stories have less a beginning, a middle and an end, and more a series of intersections between random events which can build accidentally into denouements; and, as the novel’s twelve parts reduce in length by a mathematical ratio, and the chapter summaries which commence each segment grow ever more rococo in inverse proportion to the wordcount of the chapters themselves, Catton plays with narrative, subverting the certainties and assumptions of precisely the nineteenth-century realism she pretends to ape.
The Luminaries is interested in the way in which the sense of self which novels impose upon us, that bourgeois conception of the individual as an independent agent making choices which forge destinies in the way of Lahiri’s brothers, might not capture the way in which the world really works. Anna is in love with Emery Staines, the richest prospector in Hokitika, a young man who disappeared on the same night Crosbie Wells died and on which Anna herself collapsed in the street; they were born, she finds, on the same day at the same time of the same year, and this seems to give them an uncanny connection, in which one feels the emotions of the other, or can forge their signature without discernible discrepancy. In this context, Staines’s individuality is not important – indeed, the way he intersects with other people and events is the real root of his character, and self-presentation or -perception merely a gloss. “Emery Staines knew very well that he created a singular impression in the minds of all those whom he met. This knowledge had become, over time, an expectation, as a consequence of which, his singularity had become even more pronounced.” [pg. 732] That is, the self is simply self-fulfilling prophecy.
Whether this radicalism is contained in a package effectively executed is a slightly different question; Catton is attempting to interrogate the novel using a novel, and this perhaps inevitably leads to a bagginess, at times even an awkwardness: all that detail, all those words, can come to feel recursive. There’s an extent to which Catton’s concept – perhaps fittingly – overtakes her material, and The Luminaries can feel stretched as a result. Indeed, I wonder if, at the other end of this shortlist’s spectrum, Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary isn’t both just as radical and significantly more disciplined and artful. If The Luminaries is certainly extremely clever, the Tóibín might also be articulate. One of these two should certainly win the prize (I’d probably plump for The Testament of Mary myself), but I wonder if Jim Crace’s reputedly final novel, the elegiac-if-inexact Harvest, might not be awarded the Jacobson-Barnes Award for Life-Time Achievement. The stars will reveal their alignment on Tuesday.