I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I began reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, not just because this was the first novel or story by this author that I had read, but also because the tone of the novel at the beginning, and the content, was unlike many modern novels these days—and I wasn’t sure I liked it. At first. Written in the third person omniscient, Lahiri’s novel has a quiet, reserved energy that doesn’t immediately hook you, but rather pulls you in, slowly, and keeps you there through the rest.
It’s rare that we see (or maybe, that I read) newer novels written with this kind of narrator, but Lahiri is a master of the technique, using it to great effect without making her writing seem archaic. Although we care deeply about her characters—the brothers Subhash and Udayan, and their wife, Gauri—Lahiri keeps her distance from them, allowing the reader to experience their lives, troubles, secrets, and inner turmoil from a remote perspective which at times seems pitiless and scathing, though never judgmental. Even so, her tone is always truthful, with a sincerity that I feel reckons back to Tolstoy or Chekhov. Her distance allows us to delve deep into her characters’ psyches and struggles without being burdened by whether or not we “like them,” as so many readers are wont to do. In Lahiri’s world, liking has nothing to do with it: her characters make their own paths with the same blind groping we all do. None of us can see the future, much less the characters folded in the pages of this novel.
At first glance, The Lowland is a love story, the tale of a tragic love between Gauri and Udayan and the choices that bind Gauri forever to Subhash. Yet Lahiri’s novel is so much more than that. It is a family saga, one that spans generations into the past and future, examining the choices, beliefs, and convictions that bring all characters to their present moments and some to their deaths. It is an examination of post-colonialism and its aftermaths, of revolution and politics. It is a story of immigration and of belonging in two worlds, India and America, with both shaping, working, and molding the characters in ways both subtle and overt.
The Lowland, for me, is a gateway novel. I will be unable to not read the rest of Lahiri’s novels, now that I know her immense capabilities.
Footnote. After reading other reviews of this novel, one of the larger themes seems to be that it is a depressing novel of (quote from the NPR review) “the rashness of youth, as well as the hesitation and regret that can make a long life not worth living.”
I disagree with this sentiment, which seems to pervade nearly every review I read. At the end of the novel, I actually recommended it to a friend who was looking for happy books, because while the novel isn’t always upbeat, there is a sense of overcoming trial. While Lahiri’s characters certainly struggle, both privately and together, their issues aren’t unsurmountable. I’d even go so far as to say that several of their problems are similar to what many families experience: the complex dynamics of mixed families, uninvolved parents, disillusionment with motherhood, unhappiness in marriage, estranged parents and nasty in laws. Although their troubles stem from much greater issues that link back to immigration, murder, and involvement in a controversial political movement, the roots and struggles are common to many, and they do overcome them. At the end of the novel, the characters have all moved toward finding their own peace— in a way that works for them. Although it’s not necessarily the gift-store wrapped packaging that we’d like, it’s how life is and should be written.