Jhumpa Lahiri's 'The Lowland' has quiet intensity

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Jhumpa Lahiri, author of

Jhumpa Lahiri, author of "The Lowland" (Knopf, Sept. 2013). Photo Credit: Marco Delogu

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THE LOWLAND, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Alfred A. Knopf, 339 pp., $27.95.

Energized by hope and threatened by heartbreak, the immigrant experience inevitably sets the stage for drama. Ever since 1999, when Jhumpa Lahiri published her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of stories, "Interpreter of Maladies," this Indian-American has been known for her nuanced portrayals of Indian immigrants caught between cultures. Her novel "The Namesake" and a second story collection, "Unaccustomed Earth," further solidified her reputation for excellence.

Lahiri's "The Lowland," an elegant dirge of a novel, follows two Indian brothers from the 1950s into the 21st century. As youths in Calcutta, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable. Both are serious students of science marked by very different personalities. A year and a half older, Subhash is the shy one, almost a mama's boy; Udayan, the bold risk-taker.

By the 1970s, Subhash emigrates to Rhode Island to pursue a PhD in oceanography. Udayan remains in Calcutta, secretly involved in a Maoist-inspired peasant rebellion against landlords. An envious Subhash learns that Udayan has married university classmate Gauri, but is then stunned to learn that his brother has been killed by police, presumably in reprisal for terrorist activities.

The lowland where Udayan is murdered, a plain in their neighborhood that floods during monsoons, serves as Lahiri's telling metaphor for the dark, dank, weedy places that haunt our lives. No one is safe from danger, even Subhash, far from India's turmoil but inhabiting a campus awash in anti-war fervor, entranced by the wonders of science yet plagued by loneliness.

Subhash rushes back to India, only to discover that Gauri is pregnant and virtually shunned by his parents. He decides to do the right thing: to marry his brother's widow. So begins a new-fashioned Indian arranged marriage, back in the United States.

Relationships, in Lahiri's fiction, are often shortchanged by silences and a lack of intimacy. So it is with Subhash and Gauri. She is not only a reluctant wife but a reluctant mother. Subhash, by contrast, pours all the love he has into daughter Bela, who isn't told about her biological father.

Unlike some immigrants, these Indian-Americans are not disoriented by American culture but liberated by it. (Gauri, for instance, becomes a philosophy professor, a prospect that seemed unlikely in India.) Nonetheless, husband and wife remain strangers to each other, and she eventually goes her own way. "They were a family of solitaries," Lahiri writes. "They had collided and dispersed."

The novel's power lies primarily in the story itself, told in a vigorous, straightforward prose, rather than in depth of characterization. Gauri and Bela never fully come to life. But the reader's heart remains firmly drawn toward Subhash. He's a good man too often trapped by circumstance. Will he, we wonder, ever find happiness, that prototypical Western ideal that seems to elude him?

"The Lowland" is a sad story about unbearable choices that is nonetheless thrilling to read. In that sense, and in its quiet intensity, it reminds us of the triumphant fiction of Alice Munro and William Trevor.


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An earlier version of this article misspelled Gauri

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