THE LOWLAND. By Jhumpa Lahiri. Knopf. 340 pages. $27.95.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel, “The Lowland,” comes hoisted on the impeccable reputation of its author, who began her career with the Pulitzer Prize for her first book, the story collection “Interpreter of Maladies.”
Lahiri is building a body of work that updates the American immigrant story. Her first- and second-generation Bengalis have typically been a clamorous bunch, slightly unruly and baffled by the customs of their new home, but still game, especially in Lahiri’s first novel, “The Namesake.”
Not so in “The Lowland.” Instead, Lahiri dramatizes lives that are at home nowhere. The plot of emotional separation and return, so key to most immigrant narratives, is foreclosed early in “The Lowland.” Lahiri gives us decisions that are irreversible and distances that are unbridgeable.
In its outline, “The Lowland” has the shape of a fable. Two brothers, one bold and the other timid, grow up hand-in-hand as opposites and counterparts.
Subhash Mitra, the timid older brother, and Udayan, his younger sibling, are born shortly before partition in India. Lahiri doesn’t belabor the point, but ideological divides, boundary issues and questions of fidelity weave through “The Lowland.” Even the lowland itself, a landscape of mudflats behind the Mitra house in the Tollygunge section of Calcutta, is divided: its two separate bodies of water only merge when the rains come.
Within the first 20 pages, Subhash and Udayan grow up and split to attend separate colleges. Predictably enough, Subhash is studious and observant, Udayan hot-headed and activist. When a peasants’ revolt in Naxalberi draws attention to class crimes, Udayan is radicalized, and the brothers, who seemed a matched set, drift apart. Subhash winds up in a Ph.D program in Rhode Island, Udayan at his parental home in Tollygunge with a wife, Gauri.
The motif of duality comes into sharper focus when, early in the novel, the police execute Udayan, as his pregnant wife and parents watch. Subhash’s next move — to marry Gauri, take her to Rhode Island, slip into his brother’s bed, and pretend to be the father of his niece — is at once so right and so wrong that everything else in the novel issues from this single act.
What begins in duty and pragmatism, a kind of thoughtless goodwill, soon devolves into melodrama. Gauri can never love Subhash. Worse, she can’t love her daughter, Bela. Love for her is like a “misplaced item.”
Years pass, and the little facsimile family grinds along. Gauri resents Subhash’s cock-eyed belief that one brother can substitute for another. Subash resents Gauri’s conviction that a hybrid love is worse than no love. A loveless neutrality settles over the household, brightened only by Subhash’s intense feeling for Bela. With its vanishings and erasures, its misspent time and its misplaced emotions, “The Lowland” is full of ghosts.
As she has in most of her work, Lahiri interrogates the meaning of family and the obligations of kinship. Instead of sealing its members as a protected unit, family in “The Lowland” is just one of many apparitional concepts.
Lahiri’s turns of plot are swift and sometimes unexplained, in the manner of a 19th-century novel. Is it a mistake to transmit the abrupt and calamitous happenings of “The Lowland” in Lahiri’s signature style, a quiet, unruffled voice? No, another writer would do it differently, but Lahiri makes drama out of the disconnection between plot and language, one of many ruptures in the novel.
As Lahiri alternates points of view, allowing her characters to take turns as the center of consciousness, each, in turn, falls short of expressing their castaway lives. Gauri, for instance, thinks that during the years she lived with Subhash, she was “like an animal briefly observed, briefly caged,” then released. In her freedom, she builds a structure, “layering her life, only to strip it bare.” A stripped life — Gauri’s, Bela’s, Subhash’s — squares with a stripped language.
In the end, the effect is powerful, restrained. Distance, like loneliness, is immense.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.