Jhumpa Lahiri is an elegant stylist, effortlessly placing the perfect words in the perfect order time and again so we’re transported seamlessly into another place … In her new novel, The Lowland, it’s the 1960s, and violent revolution has come to Calcutta and America, with reverberations to be felt by generations to come. Every family story is somehow a war story; Lahiri has a talent for coolly illustrating this truth … What happens to Udayan in the lowland is the spark that ignites the novel. Subhash’s forced return and the discovery that the woman his brother has defiantly married is also pregnant will launch him into the battle of his life.
Nothing extreme, nothing unmannerly; it’s all a little bit gray, as if the novel itself were as determined as Subhash to refuse any moment of emotional crisis. That makes Lahiri sound cautious, and in reading her I have in fact sometimes wished she would break her own rules, and allow herself to flower into extravagance. Yet restraint has a daring of its own, and The Lowland is her finest work so far … Lahiri takes no explicit position, and reading The Lowland made me recall one of Stendhal’s most famous aphorisms: politics in a novel are like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert. They are entirely out of place but impossible to ignore, and though Lahiri herself has put those politics in, she also wants us to look away from them, to concentrate on the spectators instead of the struggle around the gun.
Lahiri shies from tackling the necessary tangles and messes of a novel. It is that clinical short-story writer's genius, a sort of die-hard cleanliness and thoroughness, that dooms this novel. All endings are bound and rebound and finally hung up neatly as a flat, cold, dead but still somehow beautiful thing for detached viewing … Every story line is tiresomely followed until dead end, and the final third of the book is all downwind resolution, overwrought and exhausted, as if in complete misunderstanding of the novel form. The plots are largely overdone and overdone in a flat register, creating a sort of novel as lecture in parts.
The personal is political, the countercultural upheavals of the ’60s claimed, but in Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, The Lowland, which takes its inspiration from an Indian variant of that upheaval, it is the political that is always personal … Lahiri’s work has always seemed much more assured within the tighter confines of the short story than the novel...If some of those strengths are present in the new novel, they seem adrift in its larger swaths of time and space, diluted by waves of politics and history that Lahiri herself has chosen to bring in … all four generations of the family appear strangely bereft, not so much upwardly mobile immigrants making it into the promised land as much as characters flailing at the boundaries of life.
Tracing how brotherly bonds become broken by violent politics, it is suffused with sadness … This is a novel in which the most tender of ties are torn asunder, and Lahiri traces these lives as they become haunted by the absence of loved ones … The ambitious, if uneven narrative traces the tensions between husband and wife, and between mother and daughter, as Gauri's parental instinct battles with her yearning for independence.
There's a quality of stillness to The Lowland that, especially in its opening sections, almost verges on the stagnant — or would, were it not for Lahiri's always surprising language and plotting … The Lowland is buoyantly ambitious in both its story and its form … The Lowland is a novel about the rashness of youth, as well as the hesitation and regret that can make a long life not worth living. Toward the end of The Lowland, a metaphorical monsoon finally hits, rousing Subhash out of his lifelong timidity, that mud hiding place Lahiri describes in her lyrical opening.
Among other things, this multigenerational story is about ‘the intimacy of siblings’...but The Lowland has complicated the ancient story of sibling rivalry by infusing it with real affection, capturing the way these two brothers need and rely on each other … Given the trauma Subhash and Gauri have experienced, their whispered lives are perfectly understandable, and Lahiri renders them in clear, restrained prose. But are catatonic grief and alienation enough to sustain a novel?...Although writing this fine is easy to praise, it’s not always easy to enjoy. And there’s something naggingly synthetic about this tableau of woe … If parts of The Lowland feel static, it’s also true that Lahiri can accelerate the passage of time in moments of terror with mesmerizing effect.
Lahiri’s people imperfectly answer the duties of family life and the demands of cultural adaptation while struggling with personal longings inevitably at odds with both. To all of this, at her best Lahiri brings a sharp and patient eye. But with her latest, Lahiri’s eye is languorous rather than patient, compulsively pointillist rather than sharp … There could be much to recommend here, but for how neatly and carefully Lahiri confines politics to serve as an inert source of passing spectacle, domestic tragedy and immigrant memory-spinning. The greater problem is Lahiri’s prose. The story seems too often like an extended occasion for the writer’s artful displays (not that they’re always that artful).
The history here feels researched, rather than felt. This would make sense were it being presented from Subhash’s point of view. Indeed, as a teenager, he leaves Calcutta and travels to Rhode Island to study maritime biology. But the history is by and large simply dumped into the novel … Lahiri allows Gauri’s dilemma — being beholden to a man she does not love — to do most of the work here. Her writing is pitched downward. The sentences are crisp and short, unadorned … Lahiri tells a quietly devastating story about the nature of kindness. How it is never pure and often goes largely unrewarded. It simply is, and then the floodwaters rise and obscure its role in the landscape for a time.
The genius of this novel is in how, after several pieces of exposition about Bengali history at the start of the novel, it manages to ground the personal within the political, to show how even faraway political events can transform and devastate lives … The Lowland is a breathtaking achievement, taking into account four generations and almost 70 years. While certain readers, myself included, may wish for more of Udayan’s perspective — we so infrequently see anything of India’s dissenters or revolutionaries in realistic literary fiction — it is hard to imagine the thorough application of Lahiri’s delicate, observant, American prose to a charismatic revolutionary abroad.
The Lowland is certainly Ms. Lahiri’s most ambitious undertaking yet, and it eventually opens out into a moving family story. It is initially hobbled, however, by pages and pages of historical exposition, by a schematic plotline and by a disjunction between the author’s scrupulous, lapidary prose and the dramatic, Dickensian events she recounts. It is only in the second half that Ms. Lahiri’s talent for capturing the small emotional details of her characters’ daily lives takes over, immersing us in their stories and making us less aware of the book’s creaky and often noisy hydraulics.
A fine, if chilly, sense of melancholy overtakes the story as Ms. Lahiri shows how the members of this makeshift family become faint and unreal to each other, and to themselves … Her prose is dispassionate and magisterial, as if intended to be engraved on stone tablets. Instead of suggesting her characters' feelings through action, she tends to proclaim them, in oracular cadences … But in The Lowland the daunting grandeur of the style is allayed by some of Ms. Lahiri's most revealingly heartfelt passages. The novel is fondly attentive to its natural settings … Ms. Lahiri movingly affirms the loyalty and selflessness of Subhash, who emerges as the novel's undemonstrative hero.
Perhaps Lahiri was worried that she was becoming predictable, because she’s chosen to make this novel more grandiose than her previous work, with capital S-serious historical context and a rather soap-operatic plotline … Lahiri’s writing...seems to be elegant to a fault. I have no doubt that Lahiri has imagined a deep inner life for Gauri, but she can’t quite bring herself to break form enough to explicate it. The sentences, like her characters, remain crystalline and rhythmic and detached … Still, the novel is, despite its flaws, an absorbing one.
Lahiri’s failure in The Lowland is not one of style, but of sensibility. She has little writerly investment in the ethos and spirit of the political culture she chooses to depict, exhibiting neither imaginative curiosity about that era and its politics, nor genuine sympathy for the cause that motivates some of her characters … Lahiri could have chosen to express her perspective through a literary and humanistic engagement with the political. Instead she simply patronizes and dismisses the movement, a gesture that resonates well with her liberal readers, who embrace multiculturalism but shun ‘extremist’ ideologies.
Jhumpa Lahiri has reached literary high ground with The Lowland, cultivating a story as rich as the titular terrain of the Calcutta neighborhood she profiles, where an early '70s tragedy irrevocably fractures the Mitra family — and sets in motion a lifetime of heartbreak and hope, of choices both shockingly selfish and selfless … The Lowland may sweep across generations and continents, over rivers that glint like ‘crudely bent wire,’ through historical upheaval and contemporary angst, but its tone, its language, is subtle, whisper-like and confessional. It is at its most illuminating — at its peak — in its intimacy.