It seems so simple and so tried and tested: two brothers, a little over a year between them, growing up in a Calcutta suburb in upheaval after Indian independence in 1947. They are both bright, but the younger is daring, possessed of an erratic courage. They play together, and their games become more elaborate, eventually culminating in raids on the local country club. It is a forbidden place of privilege. The brothers steal golf balls and get caught. The younger brother, Udayan, owns up to the policeman who apprehends them, yet it is quiet Subhash who is punished. This establishes a pattern that is set to endure.
Jhumpa Lahiri's muted, slow-burning second novel is suspended between cultures, like her other fiction: two collections of short stories, her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), and Unaccustomed Earth (2008), which won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award; and her first novel, The Namesake (2003), which was made into a film. It may seem a relatively small body of work, yet her reputation is immense. She defers to William Trevor. She is a writer of solemn, meticulously well-crafted narratives. Her characters are invariably displaced Bengalis attempting to assimilate into contemporary US society, usually in an academic setting. Duty and obligation, primarily to family, and dramatic life changes are preoccupations. Men and women grow, mature and in turn become parents. In the title story of Unaccustomed Earth, a man whose wife has died is invited to live with his daughter. He considers the offer: "He did not want to live in the margins of his daughter's life, in the shadow of her marriage. He did not want to live again in an enormous house that would only fill with things over the years, as the children grew . . . Life grew and grew until a certain point. The point he had reached now."
Nothing occurs without reverberation in Lahiri’s world of intensely observed lives. This new novel is no different: both brothers are drawn to science, which confers a great deal of symbolism on the narrative and on the characters themselves. It appears as if their academic success will lead them on to exciting new lives. When Subhash begins applying to PhD programmes in the US, Udayan accuses him of selfishness. “If you go, you won’t come back,” he says. Subhash asks his brother to explain. Udayan’s reply is hurtful: “Because you only think of yourself.” Yet he then implores Subhash not to go: “You’re the other side of me . . . It’s without you that I am nothing.”
It is Udayan who suddenly leaves. His absence proves mysterious, as do the circumstances of his return. Subhash does succeed with his plan to study in the US, settling in Rhode Island. Back in India, Udayan, who has become increasingly politically involved, is also breaking with tradition; instead of allowing his parents to select a bride, he secretly weds the sister of a college friend. Lahiri creates a parallel sense of the contrasting lives of the brothers. The radical Udayan, committed to the Naxal movement, resides with his parents and unhappy young wife in a tense household. A world away is Subhash: lonely, barely aware of the Vietnam War, yet managing. Tragedy summons him home.
Some critics have commented on Lahiri's detached evocation of India and noted that she was born in London and at the age of two settled with her Bengali parents in Rhode Island. She describes herself as wholly American, and her descriptions of India and Indian life lack the vibrancy of the finest of the many gifted contemporary Indian writers, such as Amit Chaudhuri, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Jaspreet Singh or Rohinton Mistry. Lahiri is very serious; there is no humour, no snappy one-liners, none of the vivid set pieces inherited from the towering master, RK Narayan.
Subhash returns home to Calcutta as an outsider: “He had forgotten the possibility of so many human beings in one space. The concentrated stench of so much life.” Lahiri also looks at India from a distance.
Balconies often feature in Indian fiction; Lahiri makes effective use of them in this novel. Two of the most dramatic moments occur on them, one a courtship scene, the other, much later, a powerful self-realisation involving a character whose ambivalence and consistent willingness and intent are handled with such understated brilliance as to gradually take the reader by surprise.
Be warned: this is a demanding book that has deservedly been longlisted for the Man Booker. Lahiri writes a flat, formal prose that is often irritatingly toneless: "She had greeted him at the door when he rang the bell. But the driver had not realised, when she told him good morning, that she was his passenger. He had mistaken her for the person paid to open another person's door."
Her approach is painstakingly deliberate, and in Gauri, the younger brother’s obsessively studious wife, who appears to live for most of the novel as an unfeeling robot devoted to philosophy, Lahiri has created an unhappy character capable of causing a reader to abandon the book. Gauri’s relentlessly intellectual response to the business of living, even while watching her baby sleep, is tedious: “When she was sleeping, she breathed with her whole body, like an animal or a machine. This fascinated Gauri but also preoccupied her: the grand effort of each breath, one after the next for as long as she would live, drawn from the air shared by everyone else in the world.”
Ultimately, though, it all makes sense, as Gauri exists in a state of trauma. The only names that matter to her are those of her students.
Gauri, who has been given a life-changing liberation by Subhash, almost immediately begins to behave like a prisoner. Her self-absorption is worked at by Lahiri, whose prose style is like that of a sculptor: she moulds her narratives, shaping them like clay. There is extensive factual detail: scientific, philosophical. Gauri the academic is never off duty – even when she checks into a small hotel for a night, “she pulled out a volume of Montaigne”.
As always with Lahiri, the characters stand free of everything except themselves, their plights, their mistakes. Subhash is a sympathetic Everyman while Bela, the child he raises, his brother’s daughter, proves a complex truth teller.
The action moves back and forth in time and also between the viewpoints of the central characters, between Calcutta and a hazily beautiful Rhode Island, with a superfluous interlude in Co Cork tacked on at the end. Emotional intelligence, not artistry, sustains The Lowland.
It is only in the closing stages of this ponderous yet profound novel that it becomes shockingly obvious how good it is, not because it is beautiful or elegant – it is neither – but because it is real and convincing. The characters don't act like people in a novel: they are much closer to real life in their responses, their heartfelt cries of pain, and this bitter realism more than compensates for the stylistic flatness and methodical pacing.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent