A Feature Review of
The Lowland: A Novel
Reviewed by D.L. Mayfield
Remember that the revolution is the important thing, and that each one of us alone is worth nothing—Che Guevara, in a last letter to his children
Lahiri quotes Che near the end of her book, the long and quiet and powerful novel The Lowland. It is a shocking sentence, written by severe and resolute revolutionary, and the reader feels the sorrow of the intended recipients, the children of the soon-to-be-lost-forever father. By this time, at the end of the story of two brothers and the women in their lives, we are apt to spot the sorrow lurking everywhere. As the novel elegantly slides back and forth between perspectives, time marching on and then doubling back on itself, we slowly start to understand these basic ideologies that drive and fail the characters. Revolutionary actions are born out of the pain of inequality; duty and obligation are seen as a means to transcend the chaos of life; people become inward and closed-off, unable to count their blessing still they are almost all gone. It is a novel about separate lives, coming together and crashing apart.
The Lowland is similar to the other works that Lahiri has written: beautiful, sparse accounts of people lost in new worlds. I am always struck by how she writes about the particulars of feeling strange: learning to drive a car (so solitary as opposed to the crush of being one passenger in a million), the cups of tea prepared to particular tastes (sugar, scalded milk) as a way of combating the outside world, the bated breath of watching your children grow up in a world so terribly different from your own. Although I know the author would not approve, I can’t help but think (paraphrasing Gary Shteyngart talking about another queen of parallel lives, M.I.A.) that the immigrant is strong with this one. Her writing is an outflow of her own life, born to Bengali parents, raised on the East Coast. Her author image, emblazoned on the back of the book, shows a beautiful, intelligent women—with a slip of something covering her hair—a scarf, a shawl?—a reminder to the reader of either how far or close our own realities are to hers.
The New York Times recently asked Lahiri what kinds of immigrant fiction inspired her, supposedly crowning her the queen of the genre. Lahiri didn’t bite. “The term ‘immigrant fiction’ doesn’t sit well with me,” she said. “It just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences.” She goes on to chide that the archetype of the stranger is a very common one in fiction and poetry, and that many a native has written about the poles of alienation and assimilation. The gentle reminder in both Lahiri’s interview and her writing is that while she may set some of her scenes in India, her themes are universal.
The Lowland has been billed as a story about two brothers, but it could easily be the story of ideology, and how it shapes family. The early years of the two boys in question—decent, studious Subhash and charismatic, unpredictable Udayan—were written with a hint of sepia about them, the nostalgia for a time so past that it never felt very real. The descriptions of the world the boys were born into were vivid without catering to our thirst for the exotic; the characters here are middle-class, living in a quiet subdivision, focused on thick textbooks and transistor radios, on sneaking into the club for foreigners right outside their doors. As the boys grow older and their interests take different paths, changing the lives of everyone around them, we see India fade into the background and the bleak solitude of New England academia takes over.