352 pp., $27.95
My discovery of Jhumpa Lahiri was one of those unexpected enrichments that come with marriage: my husband owned a copy of Interpreter of Maladies and I found it one day on our bookshelf. It was the first short story collection I ever read cover to cover, and I finished it (rapturously) in a matter of a few days.
I had heard there was also a novel, so I went looking for The Namesake on PaperBackSwap. It was in many ways a good book, composed of the same careful storytelling and beautiful language I loved in Interpreter of Maladies, but I found myself ultimately unsatisfied with it. There was an almost formulaic quality to the novel—a characteristic not usually ascribed to literary fiction—that left it cold in my hands. All the necessary elements were there, like a row of checked boxes: heavy symbolism, understated conversations and actions that hold great significance, attention to the sort of pencils a character uses … as though a writing workshop had created it in a lab. I began to sense exactly how the book would end, down even to the way the last sentence would be worded, many pages before I actually got there. It was a quality I hadn't noticed while reading Interpreter of Maladies, but I could see it there in retrospect.
This was why I wanted to read Lahiri's latest lauded novel, The Lowland—I wondered if the same dynamic would play out. The Lowland is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, who grow up in Calcutta in the years just after their nation has achieved independence. Subhash is the elder, but throughout their lives it is Udayan who takes the lead, urging Subhash over fences into restricted areas, leaving home without warning, becoming more and more subversively political during his years at university. When Subhash leaves Calcutta to pursue a doctorate in Rhode Island, Udayan goes so far as to find his own wife and show up at his parents' house already married. When a violent tragedy befalls Udayan in the lowland behind their home, Subhash returns from America to find his parents mute with grief and Udayan's new wife, Gauri, suffocating under her mother-in-law's alternating inattention and hostility. Wanting to help her, Subhash forms a plan to take his brother's place in her life and free Gauri from his family's joyless house.
It is indeed rather easy to see where the story is going—the daring younger brother who can't seem to follow the rules, who leaves footprints in wet cement he's not supposed to touch, who becomes progressively entangled with the Naxalite insurgency. And yet, we arrive at that strongly foreshadowed moment before a hundred pages have passed.
And what follows has a different flavor. Subhash and Gauri attempt to build a different life, a different family in America. The question of whether such a project is even possible, together with the constant re-examining of that one tragic day, creates the shape for the latter two-thirds of the narrative. It's a shape I found much more satisfying, by the time the story ended.
Lahiri is often praised for the unusual clarity of her prose, and that gift is on full display in The Lowland, where there is not an unnecessary adjective to be found. Consider, for example, this brief description of Gauri: "Always at the end of a queue, in the shadow of others, she believed she was not significant enough to cast a shadow of her own." The simplicity and power displayed here are quintessential Lahiri, what I loved most about her previous work. It is a rare writer who has the confidence to use the word "shadow" metaphorically without employing at least several others in a bid to avoid cliché. At one point later in the narrative, Gauri finds a hair tie that belonged to the woman Subhash dated before Gauri entered his life. It is a complicated moment, but there is nothing overtly complicated about the deft way Lahiri expresses Gauri's thoughts:
It validated the step she'd taken, in marrying him. It was like a high mark after a difficult exam. It justified the distance she continued to maintain from her new husband. It suggested that maybe she didn't have to love him, after all.
The sentences are short, the language simple, and the mileage Lahiri gets from them breathtaking.
Her symbolism is equally straightforward and sometimes seems almost too heavy, as was the case in The Namesake. But this is a story of people who orbit one event for the rest of their lives. Subhash visits an oil spill in the course of his studies and learns that "the contamination could persist indefinitely." A vine-covered tree in Calcutta can hold its shape even after death when the vines take over, "encircling a hollow core if the host happened to die." Everything Subhash encounters is what he believes his life has become: contaminating loss, a perilously shaky structure surrounding a missing center.