A brother, long gone, is painfully present

Michiko Kakutani / New York Times News Service /

Published Sep 29, 2013 at 05:00AM

“The Lowland” By Jhumpa Lahiri (Alfred A. Knopf, 340 pgs., $27.95)

Jhumpa Lahiri first made her name with quiet, meticulously observed stories about Indian immigrants trying to adjust to new lives in the United States, stories that had the hushed intimacy of chamber music. The premise of her new novel, “The Lowland,” in contrast, is startlingly operatic. Udayan, an idealistic student in Calcutta in the 1960s, is drawn into Mao-inspired revolutionary politics. After his violent death (which happens fairly early in the novel), his devoted, dutiful brother, Subhash, marries his pregnant widow, Gauri, and brings her to America in hopes of giving her a new start in a new country. Their marriage, though, will remain haunted by their memories of Udayan and a terrible secret Gauri keeps to herself.

“The Lowland” is certainly 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 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.

In her 2003 novel, “The Namesake,” as in her two collections of short stories (“Unaccustomed Earth” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Interpreter of Maladies”), the lives of Lahiri’s characters were made palpably real to us, through her exacting evocation of their day-to-day routines: the Wonder Bread sandwiches, tinted green with curry, that a Bengali mother makes for her embarrassed daughter to take to school, the careful adoption of American rituals like making snowmen or dyeing Easter eggs. Such particulars accentuated the differences between immigrant parents and their American-born children, and the almost existential sense of dislocation that exile can produce in people who feel at home neither in their ancestral country nor in the United States.

While the reader came to know these earlier people as distinct individuals, the characters in “The Lowland” seem to have been conceived as representative types with designated roles to play in a family melodrama constructed to underscore generational patterns of resentment and redemption, rootedness and freedom. Udayan is the rebellious, impulsive brother, who makes a series of reckless decisions that will affect everyone who loves him for decades to come. Subhash is the nice, rational brother, who will spend much of his life dealing with the fallout from his sibling’s heedless actions. Gauri is an angry, selfish woman, who will repay Subhash’s generosity and kindness — and his efforts to invent a new life for them in Rhode Island — with chilly disregard.

Subhash’s mother had tried to dissuade him from marrying Gauri, telling him that she’s “Udayan’s wife, she’ll never love you.” She also warned him that Gauri was “too withdrawn, too aloof to be a mother.”

Although this prophecy has been delivered by a woman embittered by the death of her favorite son, it will turn out to be all too true: Gauri will abandon her daughter, Bela — conceived with Udayan and brought up by Subhash as his own beloved child — to pursue her own dreams of studying philosophy and building an academic career. Lahiri never manages to make this terrible act — handled by Gauri with cruelty and arbitrary highhandedness — plausible, understandable or viscerally felt. Why would Gauri regard motherhood and career as an either/or choice? Why make no effort to stay in touch with Bela or explain her decision to move to California? Why not discuss her need to leave her marriage and her child with her husband?

Because Lahiri never gives us real insight into Gauri’s decision-making or psychology, she comes across not as a flawed and complicated person, but as a folk tale parody of a cold, selfish witch, who’s fulfilling her nasty mother-in-law’s worst predictions. The reader often has the sense that Lahiri is trying to fit her characters into a predetermined narrative design, which can make for diagrammatic and unsatisfying storytelling.

What turns this novel around and ultimately seizes the reader’s imagination is Lahiri’s deeply felt depiction of Subhash’s relationship with Bela: his unwavering devotion to this good-hearted little girl; his bafflement as her grief over her mother’s abandonment leads her to withdraw from him as well; his slow, painful efforts to rebuild a life for himself in the wake of Gauri’s departure.

It is in these later chapters that the cumbersome historical exposition and overarching narrative architecture fall away, and Lahiri’s most shining gifts as a writer come to the fore: her ability to conjure the daily texture of people’s lives, her understanding of how their personal and cultural expectations have shaped their choices, her talent for mapping moods and inchoate emotions with pointillist precision.

As this happens, the characters in “The Lowland” — with the qualified exception of Gauri — become fully human: driven not by one identifiable trait (like duty, anger or rebellion) but by a full spectrum of feelings, and capable not only of rage and vexation but also of forgiveness and hope. By its end, this ungainly novel reminds us of Lahiri’s copious talents as a writer, however imperfectly they are employed here.