Listen to this article
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99, 340 pages
With the pale white ridge of my crescent-shaped fingernail, I lift the thin silver slice of my laptop screen. I witness its quiet journey from the darkness of sleep mode to the radiant promise of the login page. I take a small sip from the glass sitting beside my computer, which dwells upon a scored wooden writing desk. When I take the glass into my warm palm, it is cold and heavy. It is full of a clear liquid. It is water. It tastes of nothing, and everything. Before this first sip has entered me, I am reminded of a question, a memory, a truth: have I been reading a lot of Jhumpa Lahiri lately? The question is its own journey, its own answer.
Jhumpa Lahiri would be a far better writer if she weren’t so bloody exquisite about her writing. The Lowland, her Man Booker-longlisted fourth work of fiction, is an ambitious multigenerational intercontinental drama, but also a symptom of its author’s success. Lahiri’s previous work – a novel and two short-story collections – has earned her a Pulitzer Prize and all-but-unstinting praise, particularly for the elegance and precision of her prose, which attends to the melancholic experiences of middle-class characters moving back and forth in incident and recollection between India and the US. Along the way, Lahiri’s people imperfectly answer the duties of family life and the demands of cultural adaptation while struggling with personal longings inevitably at odds with both. To all of this, at her best Lahiri brings a sharp and patient eye. But with her latest, Lahiri’s eye is languorous rather than patient, compulsively pointillist rather than sharp.
The Lowland tells the tale of two Calcutta brothers, the woman they each marry, and the child born into this unexpected triangle. Udayan and Subhash grow up in the Tollygunge district of 1960s Calcutta. They spend a happy childhood sneaking into the local private golf club and listening to foreign broadcasts on a radio they build out of junk-shop finds. By university, however, they are pursuing very different paths.
Mercurial and daring Udayan is radicalised by his exposure to Marxism, which dovetails with his sympathies for the emerging Naxalite peasant insurgency. He becomes involved in revolutionary politics and violence. His older brother Subhash, obedient and passive, goes to America and becomes a graduate student in Rhode Island. He’s doing fine in his standard-issue lonely-young-sensitive-immigrant new life, until he learns that his brother has been killed. He returns home to discover that Udayan has left behind not only shattered parents, but also a pregnant young widow, Gauri. None of them will fully explain to Subhash why Udayan was arrested and presumably killed by the police.
Mindful of his sister-in-law’s dim prospects in India, Subhash marries the diffident and cerebral Gauri and returns to America, where the two of them build the carapace of a life together as a bourgeois Indian-American couple, parents to a little girl who grows up thinking Subhash is her biological father. Over the years and then decades, the marriage breaks down, almost entirely because of Gauri’s dissatisfactions and restlessness and deep remorse over her secret involvement in Udayan’s radical activities, an involvement that led to his arrest and death, and to the death of another. As the book develops, more secrets come out, other relationships are broken, some of these are mended, and new ones fill in the gaps.
As an account of family life braced and broken by competing notions of justice that come from the state and from insurgents and from collegiate ideologues, all of whose actions catalyse a complex set of immigrant experiences, there could be much to recommend here, but for how neatly and carefully Lahiri confines politics to serve as an inert source of passing spectacle, domestic tragedy and immigrant memory-spinning. The greater problem is Lahiri’s prose. The story seems too often like an extended occasion for the writer’s artful displays (not that they’re always that artful). At breakfast, Subhash watches “tiny ants arriving to haul away the crumbs”; while listening to his new wife use the bathroom, “He held his body still as the stream of her urine fell”. A boy doesn’t learn to swim, he’s taught “not to fear the water”. Gauri never simply becomes aroused, she experiences “a damp release between her legs”. She can’t just kiss someone, she has to encounter “the softness of kisses”. The writing in The Lowland is everywhere ostentatiously quiet, extravagantly precise, distractingly ceremonial, at least when it’s not cloyingly precious.
Banal profundities add to the novel’s manqué gravitas. When an anguished Gauri watches the police arrest Udayan, “Nothing was supporting her. But she continued to stand.” The challenge of a stay-at-home mother’s life with a newborn baby girl is that “She demanded little, and yet she demanded everything.” And when that baby girl grows up and is herself pregnant and trying to make sense of her disjointed parentage, she realises “The presence of another generation within her was forcing a new beginning, and also demanding an end.”
Near the book’s conclusion, on a walking tour through Ireland with a new companion, Subhash at last finds succour “On ancient ground that is new to him, in a secluded ruin’s open embrace”. All of these intellectually listless contradictories share the novel’s pages with those tiny ants and the softness of kisses and many other maddeningly meticulous, pathologically decorous reflections on memory and identity and tea and biscuits and journeying and jasmine-picking and Googling. Booker or not, The Lowland is awash with Lahirical excess.
Randy Boyagoda is author of ‘Beggar’s Feast’ (Penguin). It will be published in the UK in 2014