The Lowland. Jhumpa Lahiri.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Lowland. Knopf (Random House), New York. 2013. F;11/13.

I was really impressed with this author’s collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies. But a bit like the difference between Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys I sensed a small but real voltage drop in this novel from the earlier stories. That said, I found a lot to love in this dark book about families, personalities, and life’s compromises.

Two intelligent brothers growing up in Calcutta have different personalities. Older Subhash is cautious and reasonable, Udayan flamboyant and ideologic. Subhash pursues a biology career at an American university, Udayan becomes embroiled in radical Indian politics, marries, (PLOT ALERT) and is killed in front of his family by the police. His wife Gauri who is pregnant marries the brother, goes to live in the US, discovers a much stronger commitment to academic philosophy than to her husband and daughter, and leaves them and moves to the West Coast (END PLOT ALERT).

The daughter grows up, drifts, eventually forms a relationship, and has a child of her own. Subhash has a brief romantic relationship, returns to India to find his parents aging unhappily, and ends up living in the US. Both Gauri and Subhash remain preoccupied with Udayan, his personality, his death, and (for her) her criminal involvement with events leading up to it.

Reading this selective account of the plot, I remember it was clear to me that the action is mainly psychological. Lahiri shifts major emphasis from one character to another over long sections, and as she does themes of responses to a cruel and arbitrary world emerge: Udayan’s political recklessness, Subhash’s quiet resignation, Gauri’s solitude, and the mother Bijoli’s rituals. Did I mention the book is a bit dark?

This Lowland unhappiness is balanced with some inspired writing and character development. It’s hard not to be impressed with a writer who convincingly renders the opposite gender: the world of intelligent and imaginative boys in the 1950s is vivid. The description of childbirth and the events leading up to it really made me stop and think about my own experiences a long time ago. Gauri’s reflections on time’s elasticity start with observing her daughter but encompass relativity. The style is straightforward, unadorned, and direct.

The voltage drop for me happened during the last third of the story, with its focus on harm in relationships, dullness and ennui, and mediocrity. This was partially offset when I understood that it was a dramatic grey curtain (PLOT ALERT) to be whipped away with the revelation to her of Bela’s paternity and her reaction to it (END PLOT ALERT), but only partially. Toward the end of the story through whatever shortcomings of my own or those inherent in the book I just got a bit lost as the plot seemed to fade out with returns to the background of Udayan’s death.

Like the short stories, the writing and characters are dazzling jewels. But for me whatever extra ingredient sustains great imaginative creativity for the full length of a novel was missing, or too well hidden.  7.6/8.9

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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