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Book review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri expertly observes the minutiae of nature or of human interaction. Picture: Getty

Jhumpa Lahiri expertly observes the minutiae of nature or of human interaction. Picture: Getty

  • by ALEX VON TUNZELMANN
 

SUBHASH and Udayan Mitra, two brothers born soon after India’s independence, are the central figures in this a multi-generational tale of identity and loss, set mainly in Calcutta and Rhode Island over the second half of the 20th century.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Bloomsbury, £16.99

Subhash and Udayan are still forming into men in 1967 when an incident in a village in West Bengal sparks India’s Naxalite movement, a Maoist communist uprising which continues to this day. The fiery Udayan is drawn to the politics of extremism; Subhash, a more reserved character, chooses instead to go to the United States and continue his scientific studies. There follows a series of dramatic twists.

The lowland of the title is a small enclave outside the Mitra family home in Calcutta, which floods in the monsoon and fills up with water hyacinth: “Its leaves caused the surface to appear solid. Green in contrast to the blue of the sky.”

Jhumpra Lahiri’s spare, dreamlike prose is at its most gorgeous when observing the minutiae of nature or of human interaction. A child pushes her way through a field of grass, “her arms spread wide. The feathery ends shimmered in the sunlight. Softly they scraped her face, the back of her legs.” A courting couple meet on a balcony: the man helps the woman unclip her petticoats and blouses from the line, with “a mild tremor in his fingers”. The sexual tension between them is beautifully understated: “Her face was supported by the discreet barrier of her hand. His arm hung over the edge, the burning cigarette was in his fingers.”

This book is a subtle but definite challenge to anyone who thinks the family should be promoted as the stable building block for society. The Mitras are stable, all right – and miserable. They are bound together by duty, not by affection. Parents generate unhappiness by pressuring their children to conform to their demands. There is little passion in romantic relationships but a lot of responsibility. Sex is rarely fun and usually troublesome.

Every character in the novel is, to some extent, withdrawn and emotionally cut off. “She’s used to making friends wherever she goes, then moving on, never seeing them again,” the author writes of one. There is a danger here that some readers may likewise feel emotionally cut off from the protagonists. Lahiri portrays her characters’ introversion and defensiveness extremely effectively; so effectively that at times it is difficult to connect with them.

Even so, The Lowland is a curiously affecting book. As always, Lahiri writes with impressive skill, and the hypnotic edge to her style and structure gives it a remarkable presence. This is a sad, haunting story, which resonates long after the last page has been turned.

 

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