The Lowland

Image of The Lowland
Release Date: 
September 13, 2013
Reviewed by: 

“. . . an exceptionally well-written novel. . . . Expect the unexpected.”

Jhumpa Lahiri’s outstanding new novel The Lowland is beautifully written, complex, brilliantly constructed and developed, and deeply interesting and engaging. Spanning about sixty years, four generations, and two countries and cultures The Lowland is epic in scope but still full of depth and rich in detail.

From the late 1940s to the present The Lowland chronicles the lives of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan and their families in India and the United States.

Though close as children, the brothers possess very distinct temperaments and make dramatically different life choices. Subhash, the cautious, pragmatic, studious older brother moves to America for graduate school and a life of research, while Udayan, the passionate, activist, ideologue younger brother gets involved in a Marxist/Maoist-influenced rebellion, the Naxalite movement in India in the 1960s.

Despite their divergent paths, the brothers’ lives become deeply intertwined.

Although the plot of The Lowland is complicated in that it includes numerous interconnected characters and different historical, political, and cultural backgrounds, all of the main characters are psychologically complex and well developed. None simply represents an ideology or culture or type. Neither Udayan nor his and later Subhash’s wife Gauri, despite some destructive and seemingly heartless actions, is wholly evil or good.

Particularly toward the beginning of the novel, Jhumpa Lahiri includes quite a bit of historical background about the Naxalites and the history and political situation in parts of India in the 1960s and 1970s. While necessary to framing the story and some of the characters’ motives, the historical sections bog down the narrative by reading a bit like regurgitated history textbooks. These passages lack the graceful writing of most of the novel. It might have been abridged. This is a minor quibble about an otherwise exceptional work.

The Lowland is masterfully structured. The narrative is mostly chronological but includes some flashbacks. The chapters shift back and forth between India and the United States and focus primarily on the particular characters living in that country at that time.

Ms. Lahiri’s work is Dickensian in the way different characters and plots mirror one another and form complex patterns and relationships. Although the novel retains a third-person narrator, it takes on the perspectives of the different characters. All of the plot threads are elegantly woven together and seamless.

The Lowland is an exceptionally well-written novel. Jhumpa Lahiri deftly combines clear, straightforward prose with graceful, even lyrical descriptions. Her prose is just right: subtle, never showy, but clear. She nicely portrays something as simple as some abandoned golf balls: “Some were sliced like a gash in one’s skin, revealing a pink rubbery interior.”

The novel opens with a description of the lowland, an area near Subhash’s and Udayan’s home in Calcutta and also the title and a motif in the work. The narrator concludes the first page and chapter with this image: “Certain creatures laid eggs that were able to endure the dry season. Others survived by burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain.” This illustration is a metaphor for and foreshadows some of what transpires in the lives of Subhash and Udayan in the novel.

The Lowland is a story that examines profound questions about human nature, family, parenting, and love, as well as history and politics. The novel possesses both depth and breadth but is very readable, extremely moving, and doesn’t end with clear-cut answers. Expect the unexpected.