Pulitzer-Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri has generated a great deal of press for works of fiction set in India and the United States. Her Bio lists her accomplishments:
"She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship... Her debut collection of stories, 'Interpreter of Maladies', was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award and The New Yorker Debut of the Year. Her novel 'The Namesake' was a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and was selected as one of the best books of the year by USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications."
I have not read these books, nor nor her novel, "Unaccustomed Earth". The only Lahiri available at the library was "The Lowland". Its description intrigued me:
"The Lowland is a work of great beauty and complex emotion; an engrossing family saga and a story steeped in history that spans generations and geographies with seamless authenticity."
However, its serious lack of seamless authenticity gave me pause, as the story of Subhash and Udayan Mitra unfolded.
A reader trusts its author has done her research and fleshed out her characters, including place, for place is a relationship. I could buy Lahiri's perspective on the Naxalite movement, a Maoist rebellion that inspired college students like Udayan to rise up and fight against inequity and poverty. I had no other frame of reference: I was at her mercy.
It was when Subhash and his young wife moved to a University campus in Rhode Island in the late 1960s to escape fear and student rebellion that the novel fell apart.
I understand Lahiri was not writing about Vietnam War protests in her character's adopted country. But anyone living on a university campus in the United States during that time would have experienced student unrest. The Kent State Massacre occurred on a university campus May 4, 1970. Student protests were the norm and often violent-- even in Rhode Island.
Dr. Sharon Hartman Strom shared an oral history of this period:
"When I arrived on the URI (University of Rhode Island) campus in 1969, many young people were engaged in steady protest against the War, and the bombing of Cambodia halted classes and produced teach-ins and intense discussions. Students went to Washington repeatedly; sometimes they were arrested and beaten. Many of the most principled students I knew were already expert public speakers and organizers by the time they graduated. A small minority of these were in ROTC and tried to defend the War, and it was not always the case that they were treated with civility; feelings ran high, particularly since most male students would face the draft at some point or other. And all students, whatever their political views, were losing high school friends in Vietnam."
Such an oversight leaves me reeling. A panel of Booker judges in 2013 were similarly blind. They shortlisted "The Lowland". Happily, the award went to "The Luminaries" by Eleanor Catton.