Jhumpa Lahiri’s delicately harrowing third novel, “The Lowland,” is a family saga spanning more than 60 years. Its plot pivots on secrets and lies, and it is as much about parenting as politics.
Brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable as boys. Born just 15 months apart, they share clothes and a mattress and are often mistaken for one another as they roam the suburbs of post-Partition Calcutta.
From the very beginning of “The Lowland” -- which is a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize -- theirs is the kind of bond that makes a reader edgy. As in a tale by Thomas Hardy, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that fate has some cruel blow in store for them.
Though Subhash is older, Udayan is bolder, and in college their different temperaments begin to steer them. Meek, observant Subhash gravitates to oceanography. Headstrong Udayan falls in with an underground communist group that emerges from peasant uprisings in West Bengal and embraces terrorism.
When calamity strikes, Subhash is studying for a Ph.D. thousands of miles away in Rhode Island. A telegram from home informs him that his brother has been killed. Though the full story isn’t revealed until the novel’s end, its aftershocks quickly come to define the lives of those closest to Udayan.
Among them is the philosophy student he defied his parents to marry. Her name is Gauri and she alone can tell Subhash how and why his brother’s life ended so suddenly. She’s also carrying Udayan’s child, and in a moment of uncharacteristic decisiveness, Subhash proposes to her.
Hide and Seek
With Bela, the daughter he raises as his own, Subhash experiences a closeness he’s only ever known with his brother. Gauri, meanwhile, struggles to find meaning in her role as a mother. In a foreshadowing of tribulations to come, the one game she doesn’t mind playing with Bela is hide and seek.
Over the novel’s course, technology flattens the world out, improving our connectedness while doing nothing to help us find the right words. Lahiri has a devastatingly keen ear for the tensions and misunderstandings endemic in our closest relationships.
As a boy, for instance, Subhash cannot tell whether he’s more frustrated by his brother’s daring or his own lack of it. Years later, when a grown Bela rations the time she spends with Subhash, she is unclear whether she’s punishing him or herself.
“They were a family of solitaries,” he notes resignedly, and the book’s structure echoes this, flitting between the perspectives of its constituent characters, weaving back and forth in time and across continents as it unravels its mysteries.
Subhash spends a lot of time traipsing along shorelines, and Lahiri is preoccupied with the liminal in other ways, too. When does idealism become extremism, her story asks? At what point does a mother’s instinct for self-preservation become unforgivable neglect? Even the line between loyalty and betrayal appears deceptively fine.
Throughout, place is poignantly evoked in a way that sometimes transcends geography, be it the lush putting greens of an old Raj golf club or the trees that signal the changing seasons in Rhode Island, their leaves blazing cayenne, turmeric and ginger.
Lahiri’s prose is as measured here as in her previous work. Occasionally, though, a particularly striking image pops out -- Bela as a sleeping infant, say, breathing with her whole body “like an animal or a machine.”
For all its quietness, this is a determinedly moral novel. It certainly has no time for Udayan’s hot-headedness. As Gauri wryly observes, the man who dreams of revolution in the streets still expects to be waited on at home. Nobody emerges unpunished, though -- not even the innocent.
If this suggests a certain bleakness, fear not: It makes the fragile ray of hope that pierces the book’s ending all the more affecting.
“The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri is published by Knopf in the U.S. and Bloomsbury in the U.K. (340 pages, $27.95, 16.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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