Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Lowland. Toronto: Borzoi-Knopf Canada, 2013.
It’s serendipitous, I suppose, that when one has just finished reading one book by a particular writer, one finds another. I hadn’t read The Lowland when it was first published, so when I saw it on my local library shelf I snapped it up anticipating a good read. I was not disappointed by Lahiri’s tale of two brothers and their differing destinies.
As one rather expects from Lahiri, the novel is a tale of exile and the challenges of discovering and defining home. Where ultimately does the emigrant/immigrant belong? Subhash leaves Calcutta for university in America while his brother Udayan remains and becomes embroiled in the revolutionary Maoist politics of the late sixties and early seventies. Most North American readers are probably not really very aware of the Naxalite actvities in Bengal during that period. North American and, as I recall the time, European focus was on Vietnam.
Lahiri’s style is for the most part concise, especially when detailing events, perhaps too concise, but as I note further on in this post, she can achieve a moody lyricism. Events unfold in the third person but the focalization shifts. In this way, Lahiri is able to build the reader’s sympathy for all her characters. Told solely from the point of view of Subhash, for example, the story might have a very different effect. But Lahiri manipulates her text so that we can sympathise with each character even as we see the anguish his or her actions cause for others. There are no quotation marks around direct speech, and I am still considering the implications of their absence. Certainly, their lack draws attention to the text in terms of absence. And absence, displacement, and separation are at the heart of this book.
In many ways a study in contrasts, the novel spans several decades and is set in both America, primarily Rhode Island, and in Calcutta, India. Lahiri’s sometimes lyrical evocation of place contributes significantly not only to the mood of the work but also to her overall concerns in the novel. Rooted in their differing understanding of their places and futures, the story of the two brothers unfolds as a sensitive examination of both love and loss, of differing understandings of responsibility, of the search for self, and for the meaning of individual existence.
To sum up, I’d say I enjoyed this novel and admired the way its apparent simplicity actually crafts a highly sophisticated, multi-layered novel. However, there were times when the idiosyncrasies of Lahiri’s prose troubled me. I found myself pedantically parsing sentences. Perhaps that response actually says more about me than about the novel. If so, so be it.