It’s been five years since the publication of Jhumpa Lahiri’s last short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, and 10 since the release of her only novel, The Namesake. Thus, it’s understandable that expectations for her second novel are high. The Lowland, an intricately plotted, melancholy family drama that plays out over half a century in India and America, will more than reward readers’ patience.
Most of the novel’s Indian action takes place in an enclave of Calcutta called Tollygunge. From the first scene, when adolescent brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra steal onto the grounds of the exclusive Tolly Club, their sharply different personalities emerge. By the time they reach their mid-20s, in the late 1960s, the brothers, separated by only 15 months, are launched irrevocably on divergent paths. Udayan, the younger, joins a Marxist-Leninist political movement called the Naxalites, while Subhash moves to Rhode Island to attend graduate school.
When Udayan’s marriage to the alluring and intellectually restless Gauri ends abruptly, the young woman marries Subhash and returns with him to the United States. Though the novel periodically revisits India, both in real time and in memory, much of the drama thereafter focuses on the unremitting tension that surrounds Subhash and Gauri’s attempt to adapt both to a marriage neither ever intended and to life in a foreign land, even as they raise a daughter, Bela, amid the shadows of their past.
From her earliest short stories, Lahiri has distinguished herself as a crafter of elegant, gently understated prose, a quality that marks this novel as well. In this work, as in her previous ones, she also displays her mastery of pacing. Whether she’s describing a confrontation between Udayan and the Indian police, or an equally devastating emotional encounter between Gauri and her adult daughter, Lahiri has an unerring knack for meshing dialogue, penetrating glimpses into the consciousness of her characters and precisely observed detail to create scenes of powerful drama. That exquisite control occasionally leaves one wishing for more rather than wondering, as often is the case with lesser writers, why the author has lingered over a scene too long.
The Lowland has been longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. It’s a deserving candidate, but in truth no prize is required to validate the achievement of a work whose beauty and pathos will reside in memory long after it has been read.