At some point, early in The Lowland, the narrator comments on lovely looking pastries and delicacies spotted with flies in a Calcutta shop window. This is, I think, an apt way to describe this novel. Life, at a distance, can look lovely, but when you get closer, you can see all its flaws. And sometimes, those flaws, don’t even really effect the inherent value of that life. But we will judge ourselves anyway.
The Lowland utilizes multiple points of view to explain how life proceeds in the aftermath of a tragedy. We open with two young brothers navigating Calcutta. As they grow, one, Udayan, becomes involved with an uprising. He joins Communist rebels and what starts as peaceful and intellectual protest swiftly turns violent. Subhash, the other brother moves to Rhode Island to study and begins a life separate from his brother and the rest of his more traditional family. In the meantime, Udayan has taken a wife, Gauri. Together they live with Udayan’s parents, according to custom. We learn this via letter to Subhash. At this point, we spend most of our time in New England with him and are left purposefully in the dark of Udayan’s role in the rebellion. So we (or I did anyway) engage as Subhash navigates the waters as an Indian in a very non-Indian part of the U.S.
Here, the novel begins to resemble much of Jhumpa Lahiri’s other books. I wouldn’t have expected her to just stay in India, and I wouldn’t have wanted her to. I’ve read a New York Times interview where she resists the term “immigrant fiction.” However, I would describe, if not “define” her work as Indian Immigrant Fiction. Yes, we are all from somewhere else, but she is still sticking to a certain story line in all the work I’ve read from her so far (Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake.) It it not a bad thing and I don’t believe needs resistance on her part.
Not much later, Udayan is captured as a rebel and killed. Therein begins the real focus of the novel. All the tethers (read: family members) Udayan has left behind struggle just a bit more because of his choices. To me, this is what the story was about; the lowlands of life; fetid swampy waters that can still provide comfort, beauty, and even home. How do we move on from such a tragedy? Can we?
Lahiri also spends much of her time in emotions, abstract ideas, and characters just thinking about their life and their history. The novel takes place over Subhash’s lifetime (although not to the very end). Not a lot of action is explained. I’m okay with this to a point; it’s beautiful and provocative. Though occasionally, just as I felt I was connecting, Lahiri cut it off, moving onto another character, another point of view; often bluntly and leaving me a little wanting.
Because of the frequent musing of the varied family members, the protagonist, (who I deem the protagonist anyway) Subhash’s, journey isn’t clear. Is it just to grow older? First as an inseparable partner with Udayan, then with stand-ins for his brother (Udayan’s wife, Udayan’s child). To manage life in a changing India and later, a changing family. Like in much of Lahiri’s work, tradition versus modernization – moving forward in an unclear world, is the broad take-away from this book.
Given the other long and shortlisted Man Booker books I’ve read this year, I do think this is a contender to win. I was interested throughout; eager to read the next page. The story flowed beautifully and lyrically, like a slow moving current, as is Lahiri’s skill. However, I do not believe it any better or even much different from her previous works.
This Thursday I am going to hear Jhumpa Lahiri speak. Others in my writing group have taken away from her interviews that she is a cocky but brilliant writer. I’m on the fence and will report back after I hear her myself.
Review by The Well Read Fish