Book Review: The Lowland
In The Lowland (2013) by Jhumpa Lahiri the personal and political intermix to bring us the tragic story of two brothers; who, though separated by a continent and ocean, are unbreakably linked through love, experience, and the diversions they make in life away from family and cultural traditions. Despite the sometime awkward jump between story lines and timelines, The Lowland is surprising in its use of different settings and points of view to tell a complete story about the love between two brothers and how choices can both enrich and destroy lives.
It opens in Calcutta in the 1950s and 1960s, with Udayan, the younger and more daring of the two brothers, pushing his older and more cautious brother, Subhash, to jump the fence that divides the poor, local Indian neighborhoods from the uppity, British country club only to receive a lashing from one of the security guards. As they grow older both boys divert to very different paths. Udayan devotes his life to the collective betterment of the Indian people by secretly joining the radical left political movement called Naxalism, which fuels a nationwide insurgency against the police and rich landlords in the 1960s. For Udayan, Naxalism represents a rebirth of Mao’s earlier revolution in China. Unfortunately, it leads to his doom as he is executed at the hands of the police, his body never returned to his family for burial. Subhash, at this time living in Rhode Island and attends one of the local universities on scholarship, must come face to face with his brother’s choices when he returns to Calcutta to grieve with his parents and comfort Udayan’s widow, Gauri.
Instead he is confronted with the mean reality of his parents’ ill treatment towards Gauri and their plan to raise her unborn child as their own to replace the son they lost. In an effort to make amends with his brother, and because of his hidden attraction to Gauri, he offers her the opportunity to leave India and return to America as his wife with the promise to raise and love the child as his own. Gauri gives birth to a girl, Bela, while also pursuing a degree in philosophy. Feeling trapped and still in love with Udayan, her abandonment of Subhash and Bela later on leaves a corrosive effect on Subhash’s feelings towards her and radically redirects Bela to embrace her birth father’s radical and unpredictable streak in becoming a drifter and farmer throughout America’s Midwest and East.
For all its fanfare The Lowland does not present itself as an epic and historically-rich novel. Sure there are semblances of drama that can be found in the tensions between familial generations, whether or not Bela will finally find out about her true parentage, and the vulnerability and sense of abandonment that both Subhash and Bela must carry with them for the rest of their lives. But it fails to capture that epic feel by glossing over civil rights struggles in a country exhausted by countless instances of police brutality, voter suppression, and abject poverty; instead relying on the internal narratives of our main characters that jump through time and are often sporadic in their telling. And yes, there is the mystery of secrets and shame, but they are in direct contradiction to the serene and beautiful landscapes that Lahiri paints in the background.
I enjoyed The Lowland. It was an easy read overall; though at times I had to glance back a few pages to make sure I knew which character was speaking and when. It isn’t by far one of my favorite books but I
am interested to see what else Lahiri has to offer and to see the different ways she plays with issues of family, loyalty, and personal discovery.