Book review: ‘The Lowland,’ by Jhumpa Lahiri
Special to the Daily
Author and Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri is best known for her exquisite short stories that take the reader across the globe, distilling the lives of her characters into a blend of cultural eddies and contrasts. Her most recent book, “The Lowland,” is a full-length novel, but this, too, she writes in vignettes, like a series of haiku woven together.
The book is large in scope, encompassing the lives of two individuals who are bound to each other through circumstance, tradition and the love of family. The story flows between Calcutta and Rhode Island, beginning with the lives of Subhash, a cautious introvert, and his older and more outgoing brother, Udayan. The family is well off and educated, though the neighborhood lowland with its swamp and slums are not far from their door. Nearby, too, is the walled compound of the golf club, a daily reminder to the boys of the complex social structure woven together within their country.
The story begins in their world, in the 1960s and ’70s, when civil unrest and rumors of revolution are swirling. Lahiri deftly weaves this real history into the lives of the brothers, pulling it in when it is relevant but not allowing it to overwhelm the rich, character-driven tale.
At its heart, “Lowland” is an exploration of family with all its nuances and complications. As one brother travels to America to study, the inevitable family rift is heightened by a tragedy for those he left behind. Just as he is getting his footing in the foreign world, the bottom drops out in Calcutta, as government forces kill his brother for subversive activities.
When Subhash returns to India for his brother’s funeral, he discovers that shortly before he died, his brother had taken a wife, an educated and independent woman who is now struggling with the cultural expectations of being a newly widowed young woman. Also, his parents have hardened their hearts, turning inward into their grief and away from the daughter-in-law they don’t like. Surprisingly, the only remaining link Subhash feels with his homeland is his sister-in-law, a virtual stranger. Given that her safety — and that of her unborn child — is in question, he makes the decision to honor his brother by taking Gauri under his wing and back to America as his wife.
Thus begins the second stage of Lahiri’s well-crafted novel, as Subhash and Gauri struggle to discover a connection to each other and to build a life for the daughter who is born. Gauri has much to get used to, culturally, as she yearns to return to the studies that had collapsed when Udayan was killed. Subhash finds his deepest love is for the sweet girl who is born, just as Gauri turns away from the daughter who is a symbol of all she has lost back in India. One biological parent turns away, while the other, connected only by family bonds and a deep commitment to doing what is right, embraces the child.
The threads that bind the small family fray and twist, lies festering as the daughter grows into a young woman, never knowing the truth about the father she loves so deeply or the mother who seems unable to love her enough.
“Lowland” is as much a story about the pasts we all carry, and the pain that accompanies those histories, as it is about a rich family drama that easily moves between cultural extremes. Secrets, love, truth, forgiveness and regret frame the dynamic nuances of this charming and well-conceived novel of the messy beauty of life.
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