Wednesday, October 30, 2013
The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network
Jhumpa Lahiri is the patron saint -- or perhaps I should say goddess -- of the Indian-American Dream. Other writers, notably Mohsin Hamid, have explored the myth of upward mobility as experienced on the Asian subcontinent as well as in North America in prose that swings scintillatingly between fable and novelistic detail. But no one has done it with the consistency -- and the abiding affection for America -- that Lahiri has. This is surely one reason her books have been so popular here; her latest, The Lowlands, is currently ensconced on the New York Times bestseller list. Lahiri is widely considered a master of the short story, as showcased in her Pulitzer-Prize winning debut, Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008). Her first (and only previous) novel, The Namesake (2004), was made into a well-received film directed by Mira Nair. Reviews of The Lowlands have not been as good, but it's still a worthwhile read.
The Lowlands is narrated from multiple points of view, but its pivotal figure is Subhash Mitra, the eldest of two brothers born at the dawn of Indian independence in the suburbs of Calcutta. Fifteen months apart, the boys are extremely close, and the description of their childhoods in the lingering shadow of postcolonialism is rendered movingly and economically. Alas, they grow apart: Subhash's brother Udayan is drawn into radical politics, to the alarm of their parents, while Subhash directs his ambitions toward the United States, where he migrates for graduate work in science at the University of Rhode Island. When Udayan's life choices end in disaster, Subhash takes responsibility for his widow, Guari, who is pregnant with a daughter, Bela, who become the two other major voices in the story.
Lahiri makes the striking choice of rendering so much of the story from the point of view of these women, because Gauri in particular is an unsympathetic character, and the motive for her behavior, insofar as it's ever really clear, is narrated in periodic flashbacks, emerging only gradually. This doesn't become a problem until Bela reaches adulthood -- her actions curiously echo, in paler form, those of her parents -- when the narrative energy of the story seems to go slack. It picks up again at the end, when there is a memorable encounter between mother and daughter, and in a coda in which Udayan gets to say his piece.
The Lowlands does not rank among Lahiri's best work. But there are few novelists on the contemporary scene with as strong a sense of place, or as an acute feel for the emotional trajectory of a lifetime, East or West. Lahiri is well on her way to building a body of work that make her among the most important writers in the world in the twenty-first century.