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on August 1, 2013
One of the subjects of Jhumpa Lahiri's second novel is the relationship between historical and personal time, the way single lives can encompass remarkably different places and eras, the persistence of the past. It spans two continents and more than fifty years in the lives of several characters. As such, it's a difficult book to review without at least hinting at certain plot details that readers might like to discover for themselves. So those who want to experience the book with little or no sense of what happens should stop at the end of this paragraph for fear of SPOILERS. For them, and for those who prefer brief reviews, the next couple sentences will have to suffice. THE LOWLAND is an impressive, frequently moving novel, treating with quiet realism events that could easily have degenerated into melodrama. It expresses with new force the journey from mid-twentieth century India to contemporary America that has been a consistent feature of Lahiri's fiction, reminding us that for all the distance between here and there, then and now, these worlds are linked by those who have lived, loved, and suffered in both.
The title refers to a piece of land between two ponds in the neighborhood where Subhash and Udayan grow up, a space that floods every year during monsoon season and slowly drains. Subhash is the elder by fifteen months, but Udayan is more adventurous and more ambitious, the driving force, for example, behind their childhood scheme to sneak into an exclusive country club whose British amenities offer a sharp contrast to the rest of their Calcutta life. As the brothers reach adulthood, Subhash decides to travel to the United States for an education, while Udayan is drawn toward the Naxalites, a militant Communist movement. But despite diverging paths, they remain loyal to each other, even when Udayan goes against tradition by selecting his own wife, a girl named Gauri. And when the lowland becomes the site of sudden tragedy, Subhash makes a decision that will alter the family's lives forever.
That decision is intended to put the past behind them. But of course the past is not so easily escaped. There are losses from which some of us, like Subhash's and Udayan's mother, cannot recover. Even decades later, when Subhash and Gauri are elderly professionals living what seem like ordinary American lives, when the world they knew has become fodder for historical analyses by their fellow academics, they are still haunted at times by what has been taken from them, and by the choices that resulted. Subhash remains reserved, hesitant, forever moving in the shadow of his more outgoing younger brother. Gauri is still fleeing what she saw and did in Calcutta in the 1970s. Another of the novel's characters, Bela, first appears as a child, and in her toddler's mind "yesterday" means any part of the past, even if it was years ago. In emotional terms, she's not wrong-- forty years ago might as well be yesterday, if what's being remembered matters enough. Our minds are like the lowland, quick to flood but slow to drain. We suffer, we cause suffering, we regret... and yet we go on.
It's that simple truth of human endurance that makes THE LOWLAND so effective in its reserved way. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here, no straining for effect, only an account of what is done and why, with occasional description of the ways in which the physical world reflects or mocks the emotions of the moment. It's more than enough. Lahiri doesn't need to go to great, unnatural lengths to exoticize India; the juxtaposition of Gauri's life as a young wife and daughter-in-law in Calcutta with her distinguished middle age as a philosophy professor speaks for itself. So too does the passage where a visiting Bela is drawn to that country club, but not because it is unlike her (American) home; instead, it is familiar. Lahiri tracks political, social, and technological evolution and difference across decades and nations, yet her characters remain recognizable despite great variation in circumstance. The simple acknowledgment of external change and internal continuity is true to life, subtly tragic, but not without a sense of hope. We cannot escape what we've done, what's been done to us, but perhaps we can survive it.
Even when we don't necessarily deserve to. One of the novel's key features is its portrait of emotional ruthlessness, which is the darker side of endurance. You might think that someone who does what Gauri does, sees what Gauri sees, would be-- would deserve to be-- swallowed by her regrets, and yet she isn't. Too often even nominally complex literary fiction is inclined to minimize its characters' failings, or to offer trite narratives of repentance and forgiveness. Lahiri isn't interested in that. In a key scene one character toys with the kind of dramatic gesture less worthwhile fiction would turn to, before proving too human to be capable of it. In their morality as in the overall arc of their lives, her characters are credible, complicated, forever pulling themselves forward and being drawn backward. This conflict between old and new is one of fiction's timeless themes, and THE LOWLAND gracefully reinvigorates it by tying it to a specific historical moment in which the contrast between the two was especially striking, and poignant.