Subhash and Udayan Mitra are two brothers growing up in Calcutta. When they were children, they were inseparable and often got into mischief together. As they come of age in 1960s India, their paths begin to diverge.
Subhash is the obedient, studious one. He plans to go to the United States and study to become a scientist, then come home like a good son and marry the woman that his parents have chosen for him. Udayan, on the other hand, is rebellious and is drawn to helping fix the inequalities he sees in India. He’s drawn to the burgeoning Naxalite movement, a Communist-inspired uprising, much to the chagrin of his conservative family. Their concern is warranted; as the Naxalites begin committing acts of violence in the name of their ideals, the government responds with brutal crackdowns. While Subhash is falling in love with academia and the peaceful isolation of Rhode Island, his brother is trying to avoid arrest.
If you’ve read any of Lahiri’s previous books, you’ll probably recognize a few familiar themes, particularly that of the Indian immigrant trying to adjust to life in the United States. Family ties also play a major role. The novel is expansive, spanning several decades across both the United States and India. Lahiri brings both continents to life. The way she writes about Rhode Island is mesmerizing. So is the way she writes about the lowland behind Suhbash and Udayan’s home in Tollygunge, where one of the book’s main catalysts takes place. More than anything, it’s a novel about choices and the ways that their effects can ripple throughout generations. I don’t want to write too much about those choices, though, because so much of what happens in this book should just be discovered as you go along.
I did have a few problems with The Lowland. Lahiri’s handling of the Naxalite movement is at times clunky and textbook-ish. It slows the book down at the beginning. And I don’t want to say too much about Gauri, the woman Udayan marries, but I also think Lahiri sometimes dropped the ball in this particular character’s development. Much ink was spilled in 2013 about unlikable women in literature. I’m all about unlikable characters — and Gauri certainly falls into this category — but I wanted more of her. I think Lahiri laid a good foundation for why Gauri made some of the choices she did, but at other times, Gauri felt incomplete; I wanted Lahiri to go deeper, yet Gauri sometimes felt blank.
Regardless, I loved the book. I’m a huge fan of Lahiri’s, and I love the way she’s consistently able to evoke a sense of displacement. I met her after a reading in New York a few years ago when Unaccustomed Earth came out. Someone in the audience asked her why she doesn’t write about happy subjects, and with a solemn face, Lahiri answered, “I have no interest in doing that.” The Lowland isn’t a “happy book.” I love her for that.
The Lowland was released in September 2013 by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.