The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri – review

Does Man-Booker-shortlisted novelist Jhumpa Lahiri's real skill lie in short stories?

I have great respect for Jhumpa Lahiri. Some of her stories, especially, seem to me among the best written by any living author. Her first collection brought emotional power and moral complexity back to a form that had drifted deep into an arid, academic minimalism, and contained pieces that were as formally inventive in their own rich way as any of Raymond Carver's more austere miracles.

The Lowland, included this week on the Man Booker shortlist, certainly starts well. Two Bengali brothers, close but unalike, forge very different paths for themselves as they grow up in Calcutta during the 1950s and 60s. Subhash, the older, is the more passive and conventional. Drawn to nature, he becomes a scientist, moving to America to pursue his oceanographic studies in Rhode Island. Udayan is his fiery opposite: a dynamic idealist whose social conscience propels him into the Naxalite movement, the Maoist insurgency that arose out of the brutal oppression of peasants in the Naxalbari district of Darjeeling. From speeches and leaflets he progresses to knives and bombs, and is forced into hiding after his involvement in the killing of a policeman.

Shifting between Subhash's studious absorption in the estuaries and wildlife of Rhode Island, and Udayan's spiritedly engaged life back in India, the first part of the book seems to be building towards a kind of grand, pincer-movement confrontation with the double tragedy of modern life: political injustice and environmental degradation. The tempo is stately (Lahiri's art has always tended more towards steady accretion than juxtapositional speed), but there is enough going on to keep the reader's attention. The history lessons are interesting, and the science plays to Lahiri's great strength as an observer of the physical world. The muted textures of coastal and suburban New England are skilfully captured, with some characteristic flashes of east-meets-west disjuncture by way of contrast, as when Subhash sees "vivid hues of cayenne and turmeric and ginger" in the autumn foliage. Meanwhile the brothers' private lives also seem to promise illuminating entanglements, with Udayan defying his family to marry an independently minded woman committed to his own political causes, and timid Subhash (who fully expects to go home and submit to an arranged marriage) falling for a single mother he meets on the beach.

Eighty pages in, Udayan, the book's liveliest character, is killed, shot in the back by the police (this is a tricky book to discuss without giving away parts of the plot, so be warned). Subhash goes back for the funeral and decides to rescue his brother's widow, Gauri, from a grim future as a begrudged member of his parents' household, by marrying her and bringing her back to the States. Gauri is pregnant with Udayan's child, but Subhash is willing to pretend to be the baby's father when they get to America, and Gauri agrees to go along with the plan. She isn't in love with Subhash, but she appreciates his kindness, and they set off for the new world with modest hopes for the future.

It's at this point that a chill begins to steal over the novel. The big themes that animated the first part give way to the not very compelling matter of the child's secret paternity, and the book's gaze narrows, disappointingly, on to the couple's glaciating marriage. Gauri steadily withdraws from Subhash, and then finds herself unable to love her child, Bela. Straying into a philosophy class on Subhash's campus, she becomes hooked on Plato and Descartes, and begins neglecting the little girl, leaving her alone in the house so as to study the heavy tomes that interest her so much more than her daughter. More decisively callous actions follow, with devastating impacts on all concerned.

As a minor character, or as a full-on study in cruelty, Gauri might have been interesting. If there were an ounce of irony or humour in her portrayal, or of unabashed wickedness in her spirit, she might have been fascinating to follow. But her depiction is relentlessly solemn and insistently – actually infuriatingly – compassionate. While acknowledging the brutality of her deeds, Lahiri also wants to enlist our sympathy for Gauri as a person of tragic emotional integrity. She charts her lonely intellectual progress with a scrupulousness that seems intended to confer a kind of martyred dignity upon her, though to me it just intensifies the unpleasant effect of pious sadism that emanates from the book whenever she appears.

At any rate, having launched Gauri on this course of action, the novel toils on through several more decades of its ramifications, chronicling Bela and Subhash's largely unhappy existences in a glum narrative of withdrawal, rejection, isolation and guilt, all done with Lahiri's usual tasteful restraint, though I have to say that in this instance even this virtue becomes problematic. One yearns for an outburst of raw, vulgar emotion.

In the last act, after subjecting poor Subhash to a few more undeserved misfortunes, the book attempts a cathartic series of disclosures and partial reconciliations. Whether this succeeds will depend on how much strained emotional logic you are willing to ignore in order to be moved and uplifted. Some readers will undoubtedly shed a tear as patient longing and stoic grief are rewarded with judiciously allotted doses of companionship and joy, but speaking personally I felt coerced, and found myself resisting.

There's a superb story called "A Temporary Matter" in one of Lahiri's collections, in which the revealing of painful secrets, following a domestic tragedy, enables a young woman to tell her husband (an ineffectual young academic like Subhash) that she is moving out. It prefigures, in miniature, the domestic plot of The Lowland, but it uses trauma and disclosure with an incomparably more subtle, liberating and regenerative power. It's well worth reading if you want to see what Lahiri can do with some of the same materials as those she deploys, to relatively crude effect, in this novel.

Contributor

James Lasdun

The GuardianTramp

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