Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland: A Novel [Feature Review]

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0307265749″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41lvurV4btL._SL160_.jpg” width=”108″]Page 2: Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland: A Novel

Much of the novel takes place in this middle time, of Subhash and his wife and daughter living out their years far from the past. We watch the characters behave admirably, and selfishly. We see Gauri, the new wife of Subhash, fold up her sari’s and chop her hair into a blunt modern style, attending philosophy classes in slacks, longing more and more to be lost in the ancient thoughts of others. We see Bela, the child, growing up in a world full of secrets, slipping to and away and back again from her parents.


At one point, Bela and her father travel back to India, back to the world where Subhash was formed with his brother, to pay respects to the recently departed grandfather. Everything is new and uncomfortable to Bela, who watches enviously as her father is absorbed seamlessly back into the patterns and customs of the neighborhood, scraping out the insides of a mango with his teeth like “nothing was unfamiliar to him”. At the same time, we seem from Subhash’s life that it wasn’t entirely familiar, either. He had crossed the line into living in two worlds, never completely at home.


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Later, when she is grown, Bela chooses to not take the path her parents did, being encased in the libraries and studies of academia. Instead she picks up the thread of revolution that undergirds the frame of her extended family, and becomes a quiet sort of activist, a wandering farm worker, an enigma both to all the dominant cultures in her life. While Subhash is at first concerned by how Bela “eschews the stability he had worked so hard to provide”, he understands too, how it is a part of her nature, even though it is not a part of his.


In the end, the relationship of the father and daughter take precedence over the story of two brothers; although they are intricately tied. But the characters remain fundamentally alone, a world which Lahiri often creates. Solitary automobiles, a small pot of water for a single cup of tea, an only child alone in her room while her mother slips further into her books. The pacing, the sparse prose, the length of time that Lahiri travels across in her book—it all adds up to a evocative, if rather humorless, portrayal of coming to terms with our alienation. Some of the strangeness felt by Gauri, Subhash and others is a result of choices: the decision to fight for political rights; the decision to honor the family; the decision to create an alternate life for yourself, regardless of the consequences. We read and absorb these choices, these consequences, a familiar enough theme in literature. But Lahiri changes it for us, revealing at the very end so many of the factors affecting those choices, causing the reader to face the stark emotional terrain of death and love and loss. Lulled by the carefully constricted storyline, I was unprepared for the ending, the force of the emotions, the tears that poured down my face. Revolution, duty, isolation, cultural confusion—none of it mattered, in the end. Jhumpa Lahiri makes an argument, through every page, that each of us, alone, are worth something, as alienated as we might feel. And as I read along, I believed it, every word. I had been assimilated into the story, without even knowing it.

D. L. Mayfield lives in the exotic Midwest with her husband and daughter. Recently they joined a Christian order among the poor, where they are currently seeking life in the upside kingdom. Mayfield has written for McSweeneys, Geez, the Curator, and Conspire! among others. You can find her on Twitter at @d_l_mayfield or on her blog http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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