Jhumpa Lahiri’s exquisite stories about Indians and Indian Americans have been appearing in the New Yorker since the late 1990s, steadily building one of the most powerful bodies of work about immigrants and their children. Her first collection, “Interpreter of Maladies,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, when she was only 33. Her first novel, “The Namesake,” was made into a film directed by Mira Nair. And now her somber new novel, “The Lowland,” arrives in the United States already shortlisted for Britain’s Man Booker Prize and longlisted for the National Book Award, an extraordinary double boost it hardly needs to find an eager audience here in her adopted country.
Among other things, this multigenerational story is about “the intimacy of siblings.” The novel begins with a pair of brothers, 15 months apart, in Calcutta, a city Lahiri knows from visits to her relatives. Though different in temperament, Udayan and Subhash appear to be mirror images of each other and frequently answer to each other’s name. We first meet them as youngsters in the late 1950s, sneaking over the wall of a posh golf club built along a sewer canal in the largely Muslim town of Tollygunge. Udayan, the younger son, “was blind to self-
constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colors. But Subhash strove to minimize his existence, as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass.”
That fundamental difference grows more pronounced as the young men go off to separate colleges, make different friends and develop radically different values. But “The Lowland” has complicated the ancient story of sibling rivalry by infusing it with real affection, capturing the way these two brothers need and rely on each other. “You’re the other side of me,” Udayan tells his studious brother in a rare moment of emotional candor. “It’s without you that I’m nothing.”
Lahiri portrays these developments in just a few graceful pages before arriving at the first mention of Naxalbari, a poor town about 400 miles away, where communist radicals begin violently confronting police and wealthy landowners. Not surprisingly, obedient Subhash feels no attraction to this radical group — or to any political positions. “It’s not my place to object,” he tells his brother. Eventually, he moves to Rhode Island to pursue a graduate degree in marine chemistry, ignoring his brother’s plea to stay. “He was no longer in Tollygunge,” Lahiri writes. “He had stepped out of it as he had stepped so many mornings out of dreams, its reality and its particular logic rendered meaningless in the light of day.”
As Subhash studies the oceans and tentatively goes about making a life for himself in the United States, the
Naxalbari resistance movement fires his brother’s idealism. Protest movements infect college campuses across the world. Mao’s twisted slogans appeal to Udayan, who’s shocked by the poverty in his country and the authorities’ brutal use of force. Soon he joins a local group of agitators in committing acts of terror.
Almost all this dramatic action takes place in the early chapters of “The Lowland” as Lahiri shifts nimbly between moments of mischief and happiness to scenes of dread and violence. Her prose, as always, is a miracle of delicate strength, like those threads of spider silk that, wound together, are somehow stronger than steel.
But once tragedy strikes, the emotional range of the novel contracts and an astringent fog of grief settles over these characters. The brothers’ parents move like zombies. Subhash comes back home for a few weeks and impulsively marries Gauri, a woman he doesn’t know. Back in their apartment in Rhode Island, the newlyweds hoard their secrets and regard each other as polite roommates, moving about in that “formal feeling” that Emily Dickinson says comes “after great pain.” Gauri is “terrified that she felt so entwined and also so alone,” but that fear expresses itself only in the blank expression she wears throughout this novel.
Given the trauma Subhash and Gauri have experienced, their whispered lives are perfectly understandable, and Lahiri renders them in clear, restrained prose. But are catatonic grief and alienation enough to sustain a novel?
The middle section of “The Lowland” presents a particularly arid stretch. We know the basic outlines of the assimilation story: the confusion about American customs, the unstaunchable loneliness, the sense of having made a horrible mistake in coming to this brash, cocky country. In “The Lowland,” though, the characters are even more inert to their new home, trapped as they are in their own impenetrable depression. The birth of a daughter whom Gauri cannot love makes her only more aware of her own misery. The result is a dutiful marriage entirely without joy — and a story in which every molecule of humor and irony has been scoured away. At times, Gauri sounds like a character from a particularly dour Anita Brookner novel.
“It felt wrong to seek the companionship of anyone else,” she thinks. “Isolation offered its own form of companionship: the reliable silence of her rooms, the steadfast tranquility of the evenings. The promise that she should find things where she put them, that there would be no interruption, no surprise.”
Although writing this fine is easy to praise, it’s not always easy to enjoy. And there’s something naggingly synthetic about this tableau of woe. “They were a family of solitaries,” Lahiri writes. “They had collided and dispersed.” But real people are not such shiny billiard balls of sorrow. I couldn’t shake the impression that Subhash and Gauri are being subjected to the author’s insistence on creating a certain sustained effect, as though they were characters in a fable. The years pass like the pages of a calendar being blown between scenes of a silent movie. Every time we catch up with this sad couple, they seem not to have changed at all, except that the plaque of guilt and secrecy has grown thicker. The ordinary complications of daily life do not dilute their desolation or complicate their lives. Gauri spends decades studying philosophy, but somehow the world’s accumulated wisdom never offers her any solace or disruption or insight. She might as well have been studying accounting or geology.
Perhaps these are petty complaints about a book that’s written with such poignancy. If parts of “The Lowland” feel static, it’s also true that Lahiri can accelerate the passage of time in moments of terror with mesmerizing effect. Certainly near the end, when Subhash and Gauri and their daughter finally start to confront one another and their festering secrets, the story regains its earlier emotional power. The final scene — a flashback to the tragedy that has controlled the orbit of their lives for decades — is devastating, a repudiation of the happy mythology of immigration. The passage of decades, the distance of thousands of miles, the adoption of a new home, nothing can keep certain unspeakable moments from being right here, right now, all over again.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World.
On Tuesday, he will host a conversation with poet and memoirist Nick Flynn at the Hill Center, 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. To reserve a free ticket, go to hillcenterdc.org.
By Jhumpa Lahiri
Knopf. 340 pp. $27.95