The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: A strangely passive experience

Stripping back an already pared-down style to the point of blandness.

A train passes on its way from Tollygunge, Calcutta. Image: Getty
In 2004, the author Julie Myerson praised Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, The Namesake, for “an appealing lack of stylisation” that “somehow conjures a bleak, arm’s-length mood, a sense of life spooling inevitably on”. There is plenty to think about here, not least the dictum that we should pass up on hautecuisine writing for the roughage of plain prose. (Freshly made brioche, anyone? No thanks, I’ll have the All-Bran.) But the crucial word is “somehow”. Somehow, stealthily, without the reader really noticing, Lahiri writes effective, affecting fiction.
 
Her first book, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), was a short-story collection that won her a Pulitzer Prize. It clearly delineated the boundaries of her fictional world: the Bengali- American immigrant experience; elemental things – birth, death, love, loneliness – viewed through the prism of family life. The Namesakeand her second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth(2008), inhabit similar territory, as does The Lowland, which is shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.
 
Comparisons to the Dominican-American Junot Díaz are apt, up to a point. Both writers are confident enough to repeat themselves, with small but crucial variations. As in Díaz, the “immigrant experience”, often singled out as a USP, is only a part of Lahiri’s picture, given neither more nor less than its due. At sentence level, however, Lahiri has none of Díaz’s flair. She belongs to the Alice Munro school of prose, writing that attracts adjectives such as “quiet” and “understated”.
 
In The Namesake, there was still room for vivid, memorable detail: Ashima telling the nurse that she doesn’t care what sex her baby is, “as long as there are ten finger and ten toe [sic]”. Realising the error “pains her almost as much as her last contraction”. There are very few of these local pleasures in The Lowland, which strips back an already pared-down style to the point of blandness. If The Namesakekept the reader at arm’s length, The Lowland is satellite prose, placidly panning from Calcutta in the 1950s to Rhode Island in the early part of this century.
 
The title refers to a water meadow in the Calcutta district of Tollygunge, where the brothers Subhash and Udayan grow up. They are close but very different. Studious Subhash wins a PhD scholarship to Rhode Island, researching chemistry and the environment, while Udayan’s studies are derailed when he gets caught up in India’s communist Naxalite movement. It seems important not to give too much more away, as this gentle story needs as much narrative drive as it can get.
 
Reading it is a strangely passive experience – it feels more like watching a film. In her sense of the natural world, Lahiri tries for a limpid lyricism: “. . . the white foam of the waves pouring over the rocks, the flag and the choppy blue water gleaming”. Sometimes we zoom in: “Seaweed was strewn everywhere, rockweed with air bladders like textured orange grapes, lonely scraps of sea lettuce, tangled nests of rusty kelp caught in the waves.” Not just seaweed, then, but classification, the taxonomy of seaweed. That wistful, comma-rich rhythm is there on every page, a short cut to fine writing that soon feels automatic. At times it results in ugly pile-ups: “He lives in his own world, relatives at large gatherings, unable to solicit a reaction from him, sometimes said.”
 
There is more to dislike. The dialogue is mostly reported and wooden. When characters do speak directly, Lahiri’s decision to go without speech marks maintains the numbing sense of distance. For example: 
 
“The day he broke his silence he said, My mother was right. You don’t deserve to be a parent. The privilege was wasted on you. She apologised, she told him it would never happen again.”
 
Similarly, major events are told in hindsight, as a character contemplates the effect that a trauma has had on his or her life. This also happens in Lahiri’s earlier work: in The Namesake, for example, we don’t see Gogol discovering his wife’s affair, we see him standing at a station thinking about the time he discovered his wife’s affair. In The Lowlandthis cutaway effect is used so often that most of the novel feels like backstory.
 
What else? A central theme – time passing, the impressions that form us, the impressions we leave – is expressed through the tired motif of footprints in the sand (or – here comes the clever inversion – in the cement). Too often, it is hard to care about the fate of the characters. Yet, despite all this, Myerson got it right when she described Lahiri’s talent as “sly” and “cumulative”. I felt like the victim of a confidence trick – and it is the confidence of Lahiri’s voice, her palpable belief in the urgency and beauty of her story, that lends her fiction its power. This is not great writing. But somehow, it works.
 
Claire Lowdon is assistant editor at Areté