I enjoyed Lahiri’s two collections of short stories, “Unaccustomed Earth” and “Interpreter of Maladies.” She has a distant, cool style that works well in the compressed world of a short story. For my tastes, that feeling of being disconnected from the events on the page wore me out in “The Lowland.”
The beginning—really, the first two-thirds of this novel—drew me along fine. I was intrigued. Lahiri’s ability to put the wheels in motion and paint the scene, to use two clichés, is powerful. By the third or fourth leap in time and development of the story, my interest sagged. The characters grew distant from each other. They seemed to drift along and I drifted away.
“The Lowland” is short-listed for the Man Booker Prize (announced earlier this month) and Lahiri has a shelf crammed with awards so it’s entirely possible extreme third-person just isn’t my style in a long-haul novel.
The two brothers are Subhash, the older, and Udayan, the politically active idealist. Subhash is interested in studies—and studying in the United States. Udayan is the firebrand who joins the Naxalite movement (the background on this uprising, doled out in a big dollop near the beginning, is interesting). The brothers are inseparable but also different; Lahiri does a terrific job of showing us their unique views on life.
Udayan gets in trouble, to say the least, and the opening sections of the novel held plenty of interest as Lahiri shifted back and forth between Subhash’s arrival and partial assimilation in Rhode Island and Udayan’s relationship with a girlfriend Gauri in Calcutta. (The book starts in the 1950’s and, from there, vaults across the decades.)
Coupled with the third-person distance is Subhash’s general disinterest in trying to fix the relationships around him. Yes (spoiler alert!) Subhash returns to India and scoops up Gauri after Udayan is shot and killed by police. He suggests that Gauri marry him and that he play the role as father to Gauri’s unborn child (Udayan’s child) when the baby is born. Gauri agrees to the plan and follows Subhash back to Rhode Island and the great drift begins. Gauri has the baby, Bela. Over time, Gauri starts pursuing her own career as an academic, which seems to sparked only by a random act of forward momentum: when Gauri picks up and looks through course catalogs abandoned on the floor of the student union.
Lahiri lets Gauri explore one of the themes in the book as Gauri “filled notebooks” with questions and observations about how Hindus, Descartes, Newton, and Einstein all viewed the passage of life and the passage of time. (Perhaps this is Lahiri’s main theme?)
Gauri thinks: “Most people trusted in the future, assuming that their preferred version of itself would unfold. Blindly planning for it, envisioning things that weren’t the case. This was the working of the will. This was what gave the world purpose and direction. Not what was there but what was not.”
Clearly Gauri’s “working of the will” didn’t, well, work. She was planning on an entirely different life and here she is married to the more studious brother and she’s in a strange country and her daughter’s “father” is merely playing the agreed-upon role. Subhash is a disappointing substitute to Gauri and it seems as if she is going to punish him for it. For Gauri, there are layers of alienation but at her core, she’s hard to like. She’s withdrawn, solemn, and prone to avoiding happiness. If she’s grateful for being rescued from a sad future in India, where her widowhood would be a severe detriment, she never lets it show.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Subhash doesn’t try too hard to reel her in. Gauri (spoiler alert number two) suddenly leaves her daughter and Subhash and strikes out on her own. Gauri ends up to California and, by this time, I’d lost interest in what became of her (particularly after she suddenly finds herself—spoiler alert number three—attracted to and falling in love, briefly, with another woman).
Gauri’s daughter Bela grows up and becomes a thread for us to follow and, again, Subhash and Bela’s relationship is cordial but strained and anyone who doesn’t see (spoiler alert number four) Bela’s pregnancy coming hasn’t ever read a book.
As I said, the sweep of “The Lowland” is large. Whether it will carry you away may come down to a matter of style, but “The Lowland” left me flat.