Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

LahiriJhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is one of those books that are hard to review without spoiling plot developments. How can I explain my agony at Character X’s bad choice, or my delight at Character Y’s happiness, without telling you who they are and what happens to them and why these moments feel so real and so earned?

If you’ve loved Lahiri’s short stories or The Namesake, or you’re a fan of multi-generational realistic fiction, and you just want to know if you’ll like The Lowland without having anything spoiled for you, here’s my Twitter-length review: I loved it and think you should read it. Those who are in for some more analysis, follow me. I’m going to consider anything mentioned on the book jacket fair game, but I’ll try to avoid major spoilers past the first several chapters.

The Lowland begins with two brothers, Subhash and Udayan. Subhash, the older, is a sweet and dutiful son; Udayan is wilder, more independent, braver, more impulsive. The beautiful opening chapters of this book follow the brothers as they grow up in Tollygunge, a neighborhood in southern Calcutta. Both are smart and studious, but while Subhash decides to pursue a PhD in America, Udayan leaves school after his bachelor’s degree and becomes increasingly passionate about the teachings of Chairman Mao and the local Naxalite communist movement. A few years into his stay in Rhode Island, Subhash learns by letter that Udayan has married a young woman named Gauri. From a distance, it seems that Udayan has given up his radicalism, has settled into marriage and high school teaching.

And then, a few short years after that, Subhash receives a telegram. Udayan is dead.

The Lowland is about how Udayan’s family moves on from his death — or, more accurately, about how many of them don’t move on. Subhash’s mother stays in their family home and tends to Udayan’s shrine; her refusal to move on is quite literal. Subhash returns to Rhode Island, but his life, too, is permanently marked by his brother’s passing. (Without spoiling too much, I will say that while I found the end of the novel a satisfying conclusion to Subhash’s story, I wish he had been better-developed in the middle of the novel.)

The character most affected by Udayan’s loss, however, is Gauri. Her husband’s death breaks something deep within the clever young woman. Although Gauri moves far from Calcutta, Udayan’s memory — and the memory of the months before his death — takes over her life, making it difficult to make friends and even to love her family. Gauri finds she has a talent for academic philosophy and pursues this isolated and abstract discipline with all-consuming zeal, but even this does not seem to bring her happiness — only temporary relief, a place where she is granted absolute control over her life and her work.* In her dealings with her family she becomes colder, more selfish, more disconnected.

Looking at other reviews (warning: spoilers in those links), it seems like Gauri was a divisive character for many readers. Some felt Lahiri’s prose excused or even praised Gauri’s more selfish actions. That was not my conclusion. Gauri’s path does not strike me as noble; it seems deeply sad and lonely. Gauri does what she does because she cannot bear to be close to anyone after what happened to Udayan — and, as we learn late in the novel, there was more to his death than she told anyone at the time (highlight for mild spoiler).

Furthermore, Lahiri does not shy away from depicting the consequences of Gauri’s actions. It is clear that she feels tremendous hurt and guilt, but The Lowland does not use Gauri’s pain as an excuse for the damage she does to other characters in the novel. Gauri reminded me a bit of Rose from The Patron Saint of Liars, but unlike Rose, Gauri does not expect exoneration or forgiveness for her choices (although she does, understandably, wish for the latter).

The Lowland, as we’d expect from Lahiri, is beautifully written. I had trouble adjusting to Lahiri’s rejection of quotation marks at first but quickly got used to the style. Its prose is clear and meditative, infused with a sense of both melancholy and hope. There were several passages I re-read several times just to relive a particularly wonderful description or phrase.

I could go on about why I think this is a lovely, thoughtful, memorable book, but I will stop my ramblings here. Go buy this book. (I need people to discuss it with!)

Rating: Buy it

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* One reviewer wondered why Gauri’s pursuit of philosophy didn’t lead her to more insight or self-reflection. All I can say is that the reviewer probably hasn’t spent much time with academic philosophers. Many philosophers are lovely people, but the discipline does have a healthy supply of folks who take lack of self-awareness and/or jackassery to an art form.

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