GOOD SENTENCE, BAD SENTENCE
Acclaimed author Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel, The Lowland, has been praised in most quarters and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, among other accolades it’s likely to receive. But no author is immune to negative reviews and Lahiri has received a few for the book.
While it’s quite common for literary critics to disagree on the merits of a book, they rarely show their differences at the level of a single sentence. As Sunday Guardian columnist Sanjay Sipahimalani pointed out in a recent tweet, one sentence in Lahiri’s novel was praised by one critic and panned by another.
In a negative review for The Los Angeles Times, Porochista Khakpour wrote: Lahiri sometimes dips into cheaply microwaved otherness. Take for example autumn leaves rendered “Lowland” style: “Once more the trees lost their chlorophyll, replaced by the shades he had left behind: vivid hues of cayenne and turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning in the kitchen, to season the foods his mother had prepared.” Lines like these read like a parody of contemporary transnational literature at best.
In a positive review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Heller McAlpin wrote: Lahiri entrances us with her strong, incantatory storyteller’s voice and vibrant images. Describing Subhash’s third autumn in Rhode Island, for example, she bridges two cultures and evokes all our senses in this lovely, fragrant passage: “Once more the leaves of the trees lost their chlorophyll, replaced by the shades he had left behind: vivid hues of cayenne and turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning in the kitchen, to season the food his mother prepared.”
So is it a “lovely, fragrant passage” or “cheaply microwaved otherness”? That’s for each reader to decide. But what do you say to aspiring writers who are trying to learn how to write a good sentence? Perhaps only one thing: try not to pull out all your hair.
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