Can a novel be written in which the main character is dead? Alice Sebold wrote “The Lovely Bones” from the perspective of a teenager who was raped and murdered at the onset of the story; in Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief,” the narrator is Death itself. With her latest novel “The Lowland,” author Jhumpa Lahiri subverts traditional narrative devices and creates a tangled, far-reaching story of a family whose lives revolve around one young man, struck down in the prime of his life, whose absence leaves an all-consuming wake of loneliness and destruction. Lahiri alternately stretches and compresses time, revisiting the past, skipping through decades. Though she occasionally leans on clichéd emotional crutches, the unique temporal landscape and surprising twists of “The Lowland” mark it as a signature Lahiri book, albeit a darker and less redemptive tale than those explored in her previous works.
Lahiri’s decision to write a sweeping family epic is perhaps not surprising, given her background in short stories. “The Namesake” and “Unaccustomed Earth” wove together disparate tales concerning central themes—assimilation and biculturalism—while her novel “The Namesake” spanned two generations of the same Indian-American family. “The Lowland” outdoes them all: over the course of five decades and four generations, Lahiri examines the lives of various members of the Mitra family. From California to Calcutta, their experiences are inexorably affected by the politically motivated murder of their son, brother, and husband Udayan. His involvement in the Naxalite communist movement of the 1970s leads to his tragic ending: police shoot him in the swampy lowland adjacent to the family home. His aging parents and pregnant young wife Gauri watch, horrified; across the ocean, his scientist brother Subhash receives the news in two brief sentences, compelling him to return to the world he so recently escaped.
These first 100 pages contain Lahiri’s weakest writing. The tone is somber, yet the reasons for this unclear: as yet unmarked by tragedy, Subhash still insists on viewing the world through grey-tinted lenses. Tragic descriptions abound: Subhash is “unable to fathom his future, severed from his past”—a line he comes up with, tellingly, on a scientific research boat. “He was able to keep pushing back [his parents’] objection,” he thinks of his relationship with an American woman, “farther and farther, like the promise of the horizon, anticipated from a ship, that one never reached.” Simile after simile stocks the book’s initial chapters; Lahiri seems incapable of describing a feeling, sad or otherwise, without an overly theatrical comparison. Perhaps she is trying to prepare the reader for the tone of the rest of the novel: dark and dismal, with brief breaks of sunlit love. But her premature affectation works less as foreshadowing and more as perplexing tonal dissonance. “The Lowland” is, to use a phrase, hard to get hooked on. But once the tragedy of Udayan’s death hits, a fourth of the way into the novel, Lahiri’s funereal tone is perfect. The sadness is earned, and Lahiri is, at last, at her finest.
Central to this tale is the marriage of Subhash to Udayan’s widow Gauri. Subhash marries her out of duty, providing her with an escape route from India and a father for her and Udayan’s child, Bela. Yet their marriage, built on nothing more than fleeting physical attraction and scarred memories of the brother and husband they both loved, crumbles as certainly as it formed. This turn of the tale is surprising and refreshing: instead of finding love and conciliatory peace with each other, as typical tropes of literature would have it, Gauri becomes a disconnected wife and mother whose deep unhappiness leads her to abandon her small family a dozen years after it formed. “…It was useless,” Gauri says of trying to replace Udayan with Subhash, “just as it was useless to save a single earring when the other half of the pair was lost.”
This deep and bone-chilling sadness provides ample ground for the maudlin similes that were so out of place in the beginning of the novel. Gauri flies over the country, looking down at crop circles, which to her appear “like a pile of faceless coins.” Subhash’s watery metaphors find a new home in Gauri’s dissociated motherhood: “But Gauri feared she had already descended to a place where it was no longer possible to swim up to Bela, to hold on to her.” And through all this, Udayan is present, the most central character in the novel yet one whose presence is, by necessity, fleeting. Gauri cannot love Subhash for the memory of his dead brother; Bela is enraged when she learns of her hidden parentage; Subhash and Udayan’s mother mourns for decades, a neighborhood specter forever carrying memorial flowers.
Unconventional and irredeemable sadness is not the only unique aspect of “The Lowland.” Most striking is Lahiri’s fluid presentation of time. The novel begins with a linear narrative: over 80 pages, Subhash and Udayan grow from adventurous boys to scholastic teenagers to intellectual young men. Eventually Udayan is killed, Subhash raises his brother’s daughter as his own child, and a fragile marriage dissolves. Time progresses slowly and surely, each moment building on the last, until Bela begins to grow up. Her teenage years span two pages; time skips, sputters, flits away as quickly as she does from her broken home. Time contracts, expands, and reverses: as an old woman, Gauri recalls her brief and passionate marriage to Udayan. Eventually Bela raises her own child, vowing not to repeat her parents’ matrimonial mistakes.
It is this finely crafted presentation of time, not as a string but rather as a recursive loop, that lends the book its greatest triumph. No character is ever truly old, and none are young, either. Subhash stoops, a white-haired grandfather in the age of the iPhone; one chapter later, Udayan draws his last breaths in the lowland as bullets pierce his chest. “The Lowland” may not be an immediately enjoyable book, but by the end, Lahiri’s meticulous chronology and emotional intimacy elevate it above that flaw. It is, in the end, simply the story of one man whose influence reaches far beyond his premature grave. “Everything in Bela’s life has been a reaction,” Lahiri writes. “I am who I am, she would say, I live as I do because of you.”
—Staff writer Leanna B. Ehrlich can be reached at email@example.com.