In their general outlines, the two brothers in Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel seem to come straight from a folktale. Subhash, the older, is diffident, cautious, studious. Udayan, their parents’ favorite, is charming, irascible, daring. Coming of age in the late 1960s, the boys take different paths. Udayan is caught up in the Maoist Naxalite rebellion that swept through parts of India, while Subhash heads for Rhode Island to study oceanography.
The lowland that gives the book its title is a stretch of marsh behind the brothers’ Calcutta home. It turns into a trash-strewn pond during monsoon season, “thick with water hyacinth … Green in contrast to the blue of the sky.” It is here that the book’s central event takes place: the murder of Udayan.
Home for his brother’s funeral, Subhash both lusts after and feels pity for Udayan’s pregnant wife, Gauri, who is trapped with her unsympathetic in-laws. He offers to marry her if she will agree to let him raise the child as his own. Desperate to leave the house in which she is daily reminded of her husband’s killing, Gauri agrees.
To this point, the novel has seemed to be primarily about an episode in India’s political life that will be unfamiliar to most Americans. The book then gradually morphs into a mediation on love, family, and duty, and even as the pace of external events slows, the narrative heats up.
Subhash is a wonderful father to Bela, Gauri’s daughter, taking her to the seashore, listening attentively to her small problems. Gauri, though, becomes increasingly frantic to leave this family of which she realizes she wants no part. She earns her PhD in philosophy, and then one day she is gone, taking a job at a university in California. Gauri makes no attempt to see her daughter, and the sadness of that abandonment radiates throughout the rest of the novel as Bela grows up and grows away from her father. Although its characters are Indian, the book is the quintessential American story of a broken home.
Despite its occasionally dramatic moments, The Lowland is, like Subhash, a book of muted feelings. Indeed, it may take readers a while before they notice Lahiri’s magic: how her confident, carefully crafted prose moves us so effortlessly into the minds of her characters. Granted, The Lowland’s structure is far from streamlined, but the pleasure of reading Lahiri, who has quietly become one of America’s best writers, surely compensates for any deficiencies of plot. With her fourth book, she is now one of those rare authors whose every publication is an event worth anticipating — and celebrating.