In the hands of a different author, Jhmupa Lahiri's new novel, The Lowland (Knopf), would be an epic. Spanning more than 60 years and two continents, replete with marriages, births, deaths, and revolution, another writer would turn this tale of two brothers into a 650-page tome, filled with every last detail of everything, from bloody uprisings to passionate conversations.
But in Lahiri's hands, 352 pages feels surprisingly slender. Despite the epic scope and the exquisite (yet carefully curated) detail, The Lowland is an intimate text, more concerned with the ties that bind—and those that don't—than with grander issues.
This is not to say the novel is not ambitious, for it is. But for a novel that, at its heart, revolves around the violent revolutionary Maoist uprisings in Calcutta and West Bengal in the late 1960s and early '70s, The Lowland is the opposite of a tumultuous read. And that's a very good thing.
The Lowland tells the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, and the woman they both marry, Gauri. The brothers grow up in Tollygunge, a neighborhood in South Calcutta. (The lowland of the title refers to a marsh in the neighborhood that floods annually during monsoon season.) Born just 15 months apart, the boys are as close as twins, getting into occasional scrapes but otherwise excelling in school.
In college, the two brothers slowly grow apart. Udayan becomes involved in the nascent Naxalite movement, which at first seems on par with other leftist student revolutionary groups of the era but soon turns darker. Meanwhile, Subhash decides to pursue his studies further and moves to Rhode Island to begin a Ph.D. in oceanology.
Then Subhash is summoned back to India. Udayan has been killed by the police, in the lowland, as his parents and young wife looked on. Newly pregnant, Gauri decides to return to the United States with Subhash to start over. Things don't go exactly as planned.
All of this happens in the first quarter of the book, so I promise I'm not spoiling the entire plot for you. The core of The Lowland revolves around the fallout from Udayan's death and how it affects his family—his parents, his wife, his brother, and the daughter he never knew existed. As time moves on, each deals with his or her grief in different ways, resulting in unintended consequences that ripple through the family.
Yet all the drama, all the emotion, is presented rather dispassionately by the third-person narrative, which switches between various characters' points-of-view throughout the novel. Take this passage, in which Subhash has just returned home after his brother's death and sees his traditional death portrait for the first time:
"In spite of the picture that hung in his parents' new room, which they took him to see, he could not believe that Udayan was nowhere. But here was the proof. … He stood before the image and wept, his head cradled in his arm, in an awkward embrace of himself. But his parents, beyond the shock of it, observed him as they might observe an actor on stage, waiting for the scene to end."
It's not that The Lowland is emotionless or clinical. But Lahiri's calm narration sets a welcome balance for the events of the novel, propelling you through as if in a trance. It's not dissimilar to Alice Munro in a way—eliding years into a paragraph or two, but pausing on one slight moment for pages. It's how our memory works, after all, and it makes for an effective and evocative text.
I've read some complaints about the pacing of the novel—some readers don't find the scenes of domestic life as compelling as the more plot-driven sections—but to me, they all fit as one. That's how lives unfold, with big events and smaller ones and tedious days and exciting ones. But Lahiri's writing, about days both momentous and not, is far from tedious.
The Lowland has already been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and is on the long list for the National Book Award. Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2000 for her first collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, so it's not her first brush with prestige, but the nominations ensure The Lowland is likely to be one of the more talked-about novels of fall.
And the book deserves to be talked about, not just because it's a clear-eyed look at the all-too-human cost of politics, but also because of the truths it reminds us of: Life doesn't ever go as planned. Some breaches can't be mended, but some can. Our humanity is not something to be taken lightly. And that in the end of a life well lived, there is balance—things are taken away, but other things are given.