The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: A strangely passive experience

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

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 
A train passes on its way from Tollygunge, Calcutta. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear