When we heard that Jhumpa Lahiri’s book, The Lowland, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, we were thrilled to get our copy, but the novel hints that she may be better suited to short stories.
Story by Rumnique Nannar
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri jumps out of her comfort zone in her latest novel, The Lowland. Known for her delicate short stories and focusing on the minute details of Indian American struggles, Lahiri embraces operatic family dynamics in her new book, which she hasn’t fully explored in her short stories or her previous novel, The Namesake.
The Lowland follows two brothers, Subhash, the passive and responsible son, and Udayan, the brash idealist who gravitates towards the Naxalite movement. Subhash later moves to Rhode Island to pursue his oceanography degree, where Lahiri beautifully describes the landscapes and nature that Subhash takes refuge in. Meanwhile, Udayan takes up passing leaflets and then even arms in his passionate surge for justice. Here, he meets his equal in the independently-minded Gauri. The first half of the book is tremendously engaging as we experience the contrasts between each brothers’ worlds. Lahiri provides a well-researched, fascinating look at the Naxalite movement that range from party meetings to on-the-ground engagement.
It wouldn’t be a spoiler to note that Lahiri kills off the Udayan, the novel’s most vibrant character in order to forge ahead with Subhash and Gauri’s psychic loss and marriage. Subhash attempts to rescue Gauri and her unborn child from his grieving parents, who disapprove of her, by marrying and bringing her back to America.
The second half of the novel falters in sections as Gauri’s character feels slightly shrewish in her choice of intellectual success over motherhood. The characters turn more and more into archetypes through which the complex family drama unfolds. Gauri’s characterization might divide the reader, since Lahiri imposes a martyr complex on her choice to become more educated over loving her child. Lahiri desperately wants us to see Gauri’s point of view and understand her callous actions, but often I felt more frustrated than impressed. Where Lahiri regains that sense of balance is in the relationship between Subhash and daughter, Bela, who deal with the fallout of Gauri’s abandonment.
The tempo of Lahiri’s work is usually quite stately and she lets events unfold with observational details rather than crosscutting between the main action, which can be a tad boring in some stretches of the novel.
The Lowland is an interesting read if you stick at it. Even the mishaps are written with grace and she keeps you hooked on until the end. The book serves as a reminder of how Lahiri is one of the sharpest writers of her generation, particularly in ability to unveil new ways to look at Naxalite and immigrant experiences.
Story By: Rumnique Nannar | Photograph: Marco Delog