Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, The Lowland, is as mesmerizing as it is tragic. Painting a vivid portrait of a family coping with the loss of its most vibrant and passionate member, the novel still has its flaws. Yet somehow, the work overcomes any setbacks with its ability to create a tangible world.
Though Lahiri’s past work dealt more closely with themes of immigration and cultural identity among Indian-Americans, The Lowland focuses more on relationships between the characters themselves. The novel follows the lives of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who grew up in Calcutta during the 1960s. Subhash is the quiet and obedient one, and leaves India to pursue a doctorate in marine biology in Rhode Island, whereas Udayan flouts tradition and gets involved in the Naxalite movement, which follows the tenants of Mao’s communism.
The Lowland manages to do the impossible: At times, it feels as if you’re not actually reading at all. Instead, the reader is dropped into a vividly drawn world without any jarring discomfort. The prose is beautifully simplistic and subtle, putting more into spinning a real story than attempting to call attention to itself. Rather than being a flaw, this simplicity creates another dimension to the strained relationships throughout the novel.
One issue, however, is how some of the characters seem to fall into tropes rather than being unique individuals. Though they seem remarkably lifelike, there are a lot of times where there isn’t anything particularly original about a character. Udayan is a fairly typical revolutionary in most of the book, and his daughter Bela fits into the stereotype of the hippie rebel. And while these characters are believable, occasionally their lack of originality makes them less interesting than they might otherwise be.
Though some of the characters might not be particularly original, one of the greatest strengths in The Lowland is the depth and complexity of the relationships between the characters. Lahiri examines cultural obligation between family members and then puts them into impossible circumstances, straining tradition and pushing her characters to find ways around the confining social norms. The relationships between Udayan’s wife Gauri, Subhash and Bela develop and twist so beautifully that the reader is compelled to finish the novel just to learn what happens between all of the characters. The relationship between Gauri and Bela, in particular, is terribly fraught and Lahiri does an excellent job exploring the feelings of a mother who doesn’t love her child, and how that child deals with the pain.
And though the characters’ emptiness is portrayed in an achingly beautiful way, at times it also turns out to be one of its weaknesses. The space created by the death of one of the characters creates a dragging vacuum in the novel. The characters are so alone and so troubled by their process of recovery that it becomes painful to spend time with them, and not in a productive way. The book spans about four generations of this family, and the years pass in the novel in a continuum. The scope of this story is almost too large, as we are introduced to a character or connection that suddenly ends and we find that two years have passed in the interim. Despite the drastic changes in life situations, many of the characters are stagnant and their problems remain similar.
A very interesting component of this book is the inclusion of political philosophy and the exploration of post-independence India. The Naxalite movement is compared to the protests against the Vietnam War in American universities, and separated from them as characters pay a steep price for involvement in such movements. A lot of the struggles between generations are the products of their existing in different incarnations of India, living in a nation that has struggled to find its feet and national identity. The cross-cultural conflicts are also present, as characters struggle to adapt to the United States and are conflicted about returning to Calcutta after leaving. An international divide lends itself to the characters’ isolation throughout the novel, emphasizing the painful absence of one of the main characters.
Though The Lowland has its flaws, Lahiri’s new book is indisputably worth reading. The immensely complex relationships between the characters outweigh the fact that some are slightly stereotypical, and the beauty and ease with which she tells the story glosses over the fact that the scope of the novel might have been slightly too large to prevent it from dragging. At its heart, the story of Subhash, Udayan, Gauri and Bela is a marvelous story.