We did Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection Unaccustomed Earth a while ago to general approval so I was keen to read The Lowland when it was chosen. Lahiri won the Pulitzer for her first short story collection and she is clearly a very accomplished short story writer. However I question whether she has developed the technique required for a 350 page family drama/post-colonial epic.
Synopsis-wise this is the story of two brothers, their differing paths through life and the ripple effect of their decisions on those around them. The novel is divided into VIII Parts. The action takes place in both India and the USA.
Initially it is set in India at the time of the Naxalite Insurgency – this was early 1970’s and the Naxalites were a Maoist Group seeking radical change through violent means. We then follow one of the brothers as he moves abroad, and we are in the well-trodden (for this writer) territory of the South Asian diaspora. The sense of isolation, dislocation and of not remaining true to one’s roots permeates Part II and is well drawn. From then on the action moves between both places right up to the present day. The wide sweep of history over the last 70 years is good.
As a short story writer Lahiri knows how to distill incident down to its essence, create tension and empathy in the reader and leave you with that feeling of recognition of a situation that is a satisfying part of the reading experience. Examples of where this works well are Part VI Chapter 1 there’s a tutor/student relationship with an original twist. And a particularly effective very tightly drawn mother/daughter confrontation Part VII Chap 5 – tension builds up well to this and it has great emotional truthfulness.
But my problem with the book overall is that although Lahiri has an engaging writing style her characterization can be unconvincing. These are very shut-down characters emotionally and I suppose it is hard to write about emotional numbness and elicit any interest. But the net result is there is no developing momentum and it’s hard to feel involvement with characters.
For example although intellectually I know that maternal disinterest might follow from the experiences Gauri has had to face I’m not convinced by the story telling. The whole section where Gauri moves to America loses pace, the relationship with Subhash lacks conviction. For me, those telling little details which make a situation outside my own experience believable are lacking – it’s all very theoretical. The author has a coherent reason for the maternal disinterest but fails to flesh it out.
And now I have gone and copied an annoying trait I found in the book! I have suddenly started naming characters without any context !
Another issue I have is she doesn’t signpost her changes of time well and in a non-linear narrative this is vital. I like novels with time shifts, but darting about chronologically is disconcerting when there is ambiguity in the time period of events and it interrupts the reading flow.
This was one of those books where I ploughed on through duty but the payoff was very late in coming and I’m not sure it was sufficient for the effort of reading thus far. Essentially this is a short story writer attempting an epic novel and it has not quite come off.