The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Published in 2013
Genre: Contemporary fiction
“East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque.”
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri, weaves through years and across oceans to create a narrative that is universal despite the specificity of the culture from which the characters originate. There is a kaleidoscopic element to the human experience that is captured and translated into the words within this novel. Pay attention; you might miss something.
The Lowland begins with two brothers: Subhash and Udayan. Growing up in Calcutta’s neighborhood of Tollygunge, the two spend every waking moment together. Subhash is more reserved and contrasts Udayan’s penchant for taking risks. They are side by side all the way through primary school, but are separated for the first time when they attend different universities. Udayan becomes more political and joins a radical movement while Subhash moves to America to pursue his PhD.
The act of Subhash leaving his family severs his intimate connection with Udayan who marries another student, Gauri, without their parent’s permission; the two brothers keep in contact through letters, but they serve only to keep up appearances. While in America, Subhash begins an affair with an older American woman; their time together ends when she breaks it off to in order to try and make her marriage work. It is in the wake of this emotional bludgeoning that Subhash learns of Udayan’s death.
Subhash doesn’t receive the warm welcome he looked forward to upon returning to Calcutta. He learns that, despite letters saying otherwise, Udayan continued his support of the radicals and was killed by the police. His family watched as he was taken away and shot in a nearby field. Subhash’s parents blame Gauri, who is pregnant and desperate to leave Calcutta. Believing it is what Udayan would have wanted, Subhash marries Gauri and brings her to America. The narrative then switches to 12 years after Udayan’s death when Subhash travels to Calcutta with his daughter, Bela, to mourn the death of his father. They return to Rhode Island and find Gauri has left for California, unable to fulfill her role as a mother.
I realize that this is a lot of plot summary, and this snippet in no way details the majority of the plot or the intricate subplots Lahiri plants in the narrative, but I couldn’t think of a better way to demonstrate how she captures the sudden changes that occur in life. She also compares the cultures of Calcutta and Rhode Island throughout the years; when Gauri first comes to Rhode Island with Subhash, she discovers the serenity of an American university in contrast to a campus in Calcutta during political upheaval. Here there are no demonstrations, armed guards, or people constantly questioning her motives or political ideology.
The characters in The Lowland are all nuanced, complex, and often surprise both themselves and the reader with their actions. A prime example is the character Gauri who studies philosophy during time spent in Rhode Island while Subhash is busy at work. The narrative follows her adjustment to living in another country as she has her child before eventually returning to school. She finds her studies to be more fulfilling than motherhood; though she loves her daughter, Bela believes Subhash is her real father and forms a stronger bond with him than with Gauri.
Lahiri executes difficult writing techniques with flourish and ease. The story spans over sixty years in the lives of these characters, sometimes jumping decades between parts and, though it can be jarring when this happens since the introduction of which characters the section follows are intentionally delayed, Lahiri portrays the passage through time as a parallel to how we often experience it. She also makes extensive use of summary and the different points of view of characters which allows the reader to understand the perspectives of characters surrounding a few key events. Another aspect that is at first noticeable but soon forgotten is that she eschews the use of quotation marks around dialogue. The dialogue is tagged appropriately and most conversations take place between two people, so the conversation flows well and the reader can easily keep track of who is speaking.
On a larger scale, The Lowland focuses thematically on relationships. The narrative and characters run the gambit of different ways we connect with other people; the dynamics of family, lovers, colleagues, parents, and couples all take their turns on center stage and are discussed in a variety of ways. Exploring humanity is the essence of literature and The Lowland truly aims toward understanding how we interact; the lies we tell ourselves and others, the vows we break, and the things unsaid between people are all illustrated with masterful clarity.
This book came to me through a recommendation and I can say that I am the better for having been exposed to it. There are books that make us better writers, better listeners, and better readers, but every once in a while we stumble upon a book that makes us better people; The Lowland is one such book. The characters and their interactions transcend cultures and Lahiri writes with a passion and command of language that is absolutely awe inspiring.
Verdict: 5 complex familial relationships out of 5
Recommended for: Adults of any nationality or religion, those interested in learning about different cultures and the experience of immigrants, people looking for a complex story that contains fantastic prose, fans of contemporary literature, and you!
Not recommended for: Children, people who want a simple story where everyone is happy in the end, those who dislike realism, fans of feeling apathy towards those who are different, or the close-minded.