Bloomsbury £16.99

Book review: The Lowland, By Jhumpa Lahiri

Brothers entwined in a family tragedy

In her first novel, The Namesake, and her two collections of short stories, the Pulitzer Prize laureate Jhumpa Lahiri explored the American-Bengali immigrant experience. The Lowland, her ambitious Man Booker-shortlisted second novel, follows the fortunes of four generations of a family in Calcutta and Rhode Island across 60 years. Its starting point is an archetypal relationship between two brothers.

Subhash and Udayan were born in suburban Calcutta 15 months apart in the troubled aftermath of the Second World War, when India gained its independence and Bengal was eventually partitioned after civil war. Hindu refugees from the largely Muslim east poured into Calcutta in the west, and Lahiri paints a vivid panorama of the fast-developing city. A patch of countryside with two ponds behind the boys’ house, near the exclusive colonial Tolly Club, is used to great effect as a recurring motif of change. When the boys played there as children it was a beautiful area, populated by foxes and birds, the ponds overgrown with wild hyacinth, but as the years pass it becomes a rubbish dump, and is finally completely built over.  It’s here in the lowland that the novel’s terrible, defining event takes place.

Lahiri’s greatest ability is to write perceptively about families with warmth and humanity, but never sentimentality. She identifies the sinews that binds them together, sinews that should stretch to accommodate difference, but which all too often constrict to resist it. She portrays with deft strokes how each family member, willingly or otherwise, is affected by the others. Subhash and Udayan’s parents are middle-class Hindus, who educate their sons highly, yet expect them to follow the old traditions. Their fatal flaw is that though they love both children, they all too obviously prefer bright, adventurous Udayan.

Instead of resenting this favouritism, cautious, obedient Subhash joins in the general adoration of his brother. He has “no sense of himself without Udayan”. The two are inseparable as children, and Subhash’s loyalty to his brother will affect the way he lives his whole life. Udayan, instead, grows up putting ideals of social justice first and family second. He goes his own way, even marrying his bluestocking girlfriend, Gauri, without his parents’ knowledge. Subhash’s break from his family is gentler – he goes to study in America, settling in Rhode Island. There, he turns down an invitation to an anti-Vietnam war demonstration. “It’s not my place to object,” he says, in stark contrast to his brother’s chosen path.

The story at the heart of The Lowland is how Udayan’s involvement in radical activist politics devastates the entire family. A student who becomes a teacher, Udayan is drawn into the militant Maoist Naxalite movement in Calcutta. By the early 1970s, Naxalites in Calcutta were carrying out acts of terrorism, assassinating individuals they identified as “class enemies”. In a police reprisal for these, Udayan is trapped and brutally executed one evening in front of his wife and parents. 

The remaining three-quarters of the novel examines the profound effects of this shocking murder. Gauri, it turns out, is pregnant, and in a dramatic rebellion against his grieving parents, who wish to adopt the child and sever links with their daughter-in-law, Subhash marries her himself and takes her back to America.

The mismatched pair’s marriage of convenience, their differing experiences of parenthood and of putting down roots in a strange country is all tenderly and convincingly evoked. Gauri, arguably the novel’s most complex character, is a solitary scholar from a fragmented family, who’d never expected to marry until she fell in love with Udayan. She could not fit the traditional domestic role in which her mother-in-law placed her. Now she’s frozen in mourning for Udayan and is expected to cleave to the newborn girl, Bela, in his memory, but she finds she can’t. It’s a great achievement of Lahiri’s to present Gauri in a sympathetic light as she follows her own sequestered path as an academic and ponders the extent of her collusion in Udayan’s crimes. Bela in her turn must deal with the truth about her parentage, her complex relationship with her mother and the utter foreignness of the city far away to which she’s told she belongs.

The early confidence of this absorbing novel and its ambitious epic scope begin to dwindle towards the end, as though the mighty power of the wave that broke upon the family at Udayan’s death is spent. It’s partly because he died only a quarter of the way through, partly that with his death the epic political angle ends too, and Calcutta fades into the background. Yet though the book ends quietly, such is the strength, individuality and vividness of Lahiri’s characters, that it’s a loss when their voices finally fall silent.

Rachel Hore’s new novel, The Silent Tide, is published by Simon and Schuster

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine