The Lowland is a captivating and powerful story by Jhumpa Lahiri that delves into family and geography. It begins with two brothers, born in India. While they have a strong connection and friendship, Udayan is drawn into a communist movement that is sweeping across West Bengal and becomes a part of a violent revolutionary group. Subhash, on the other hand, moves to Rhode Island to attain his PhD and live a quiet life. Subhash’s future, though it will remain in America, is shaped by his brother and the tragic events that Udayan’s passionate political drive brings to their family.
Udayan also brings Gauri into their family. She is educated and interested in philosophy, but her pregnancy affects all members of the family in different ways. Gauri’s character is unique in her desire for independence, prioritizing her studies and her sovereignty above her expected role as a mother. It makes her an unusual, but very realistic, character by challenging the traditions and emotions that we often assume to be inherent. The novel also challenges heteronormative attraction in a subtle way which reflects the honest and fluid nature of identity.
One criticism I have read of the novel is that the characters are not developed well, and that when they are, it is often not a logical development. I personally think that the character development was very realistic, which was what made the story so captivating. We don’t always develop in a coherent way ourselves, and that’s often what tears relationships apart and confuses us in our friendships.
Lahiri bounces from one character’s point of view to the next seamlessly. The multiple perspectives are a crucial element to her writing because as a narrator, she is largely objective when it comes to morality. She neither favours one character’s actions over another; nor does she comment on the moral value of any character’s actions. The reader hears what characters think of themselves and what other characters think of them, allowing for a personal and grounded opinion.
Lahiri’s novel gives a taste of what it was like to grow up in Calcutta in the 1960’s, as well as the experience of immigrating to the United States. It addresses the conflicts of family, tradition and independence that are familiar issues to many people. Its title, The Lowland comes from a marshy stretch of land in the brothers’ hometown of Tollygunge, Calcutta. It represents a wasteland to some, but a deep collection of memories to others. Water and geological processes run beneath the surface of this book and guide the action along in an organic way.
The action is also guided along in a beautiful way. This is only Lahiri’s third novel, but she is already the recipient of the Guggenheim fellowship, Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Hemingway Award. The Lowland is poetic and captivating, and it was long-listed for 2013 Man Booker Prize.
Lahiri was born in London, raised in Rhode Island, and is currently living in Brooklyn. The movement in her own life is likely what made the story’s notions of belonging and immigration so complex. More than one of her novels delve into the experience of immigration, and I think they are so successful because she brings a strong emotional power to the events. I was moved to tears by this novel and the raw emotions of family that jump from the page into your heart. I enjoyed getting to know these characters as well as some Bengali traditions, and would highly recommend it to Schema readers.