The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri (Book Review)

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Jhumpa Lahiri made a name for herself when she debuted in 1999 with a collection of short stories (The Interpreter of Maladies) and was awarded The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Needless to say, those stories are incredible. They are precise, economical, moving, and incredibly wise. One of Lahiri’s greatest strengths is describing the confluence of American and Indian culture. And that strength is one of the focal points of her new novel, The Lowland, which has already been nominated for The Man-Booker Prize and The National Book Award.

The Lowland documents the lives of three generations of an Indian family over the course of sixty years. Starting with the birth of the protagonist Subhash and his brother Udayan–both born in Calcutta in the 1950s–and running through the present, the story takes the reader through numerous settings, characters, and situations all in a relatively brief novel.

It is difficult to describe much of the story without spoiling some very shocking and powerful twists in the plot, so I will avoid too many specifics. But the themes explored are diverse and thoughtful: revolutionary politics, immigration, American culture and, most centrally, the complexities of family and marriage in the face of tragedy. All of these themes are explored in light of a devastating tragedy that occurs early in the book, the effects of which are felt to the last page.

Lahiri’s finely-tuned short story skills are on full display with quick, glancing characterization, terse conversations, and very few prolonged scenes. The result is some wonderful writing. Consider Lahiri’s description of a character’s grandfather:

It was her grandfather, who’d been a professor at the Sanskrit College, who’d died with a book on his chest, who’d inspired her to study what she did.

Or her description of Udayan and Subhash:

While Subhash stayed in clear view, Udayan was disappearing: even in their two-room house, when he was a boy, he hid compulsively under the bed, behind the doors, in the crate where winter quilts were stored.

These descriptions, though brief, are wonderfully telling. They display Lahiri’s ability to give the reader densely-packed insight into her characters that, in the hands of a different writer, might take pages. While at times there is notable tension between this crisp prose and the extended format of the novel, on the whole Lahiri’s deft writing holds the story together, making The Lowlands a worthwhile read.

One of the most impressive feats of this novel is the way the author forces the reader to personally feel the effects of the story’s central tragedy in the way that the characters themselves do. We see one of the characters visiting the site of the tragedy–a place she reveres, but that has been turned into a trash heap:

She piles the things into the basket, empties the basket a little ways off, and then begins to fill it again. With bare hands she sorts through the empty bottles of Dettol, Sunsilk shampoo. Things rats don’t eat, that crows don’t bother to carry away. Cigarette packets tossed in by passing strangers. A bloodied sanitary pad.

The pain of this tragedy, of course, results in great spiritual and philosophical distress for the various characters. Those who deal with it more successfully do so by taking action and attempting to improve the lives of others despite the depth of their own sadness. By the end of the story these characters have more or less made peace with the tragedy and found some semblance of happiness. Others, however, get lost in their own heads, looking to thought and isolation for survival. The result of this inward turn, unsurprisingly, is a pervasive, overwhelming helplessness. One character reflects:

Most people trusted in the future, assuming that their preferred version of it would unfold. Blindly planning for it, envisioning things that weren’t the case. This was the working of the will. This was what gave the world purpose and direction. Not what was there but what was not.

Who can say with any honesty that this is untrue of themselves? We all find ourselves planning out the way we want our lives to unfold, only to be crushed when things play out any other way.

Later in the story, a tour guide tells one one of the main characters a story about an island near where he lives in Rhode Island:

On a small island in the middle of the swamp the local Narragansett tribe had built a fort. In a camp of wigwams, behind a palisade of sticks, they had housed themselves, believing their refuge was impregnable. But in the winter of 1675, when the marsh ground was frozen, and the trees were bare, the fort was attacked by colonial militia. Three hundred people were burned alive. Many who’d escaped died of disease and starvation.

Lahiri uses this to illustrate the point that, though we can plan for the future–to set up protections and barriers against pain–often times, the tighter we hang on to our plans, the more devastating it is when they slip from our grasp. While The Lowlands has its share of technical challenges, it overcomes them regularly by beautifully and hauntingly portraying the way that humans respond when the promise of the future slips through our clasped fingers.

The end of the novel finds the characters living with varying degrees of satisfaction and happiness, but even the most contented of them seems to miss the point. “He is awash with the gratitude of his advancing years, for the timeless splendors of the earth, for the opportunity to behold them.” To believe this for a moment, as this character does on a vacation, is one thing. But for so many of those who experience life-altering pain and suffering, the “splendors of the earth” are far from comforting. In this way, the tragedies of the novel leave the reader wondering whether the solutions reached by the characters are real solutions at all. Where, in the end, can one find a foundation upon which one can confidently build for the future?

To a certain extent, everyone is guilty of building their life on a self-appointed, self-evaluated foundation. This seems to be the point of Christ’s oft repeated parable about the wise and foolish builders (Matt. 7). Everyone is building their life on a foundation. The question is whether or not the foundation you’ve chosen can handle the pummeling storms of life. According to Jesus, there is only one foundation in the universe that will not wash away when those storms come swooping in: God himself. And in his grace, he sometimes calls for the destruction of our false foundations–our idols–to wake us up to the shortcomings and short-sightedness of those very self-constructed foundations.

As Tim Keller has said, “An…[idol] is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.” The idols and false-foundations of the characters in The Lowland are the idols of many–they are good things turned into ultimate things: education, family, politics, and national pride. One by one, these come crumbling down over the course of the book and no character is entirely able to cope with the results.

Like the characters in this novel, it is true that we can escape tragedy and survive unexpected outcomes with varying degrees of our sanity and happiness intact. But what if your sanity and happiness were fundamentally untouchable? What if your self-identity wouldn’t be called into question should your worst fears become a reality? If you read The Lowland honestly, you’ll be left looking for a  foundation like that. The gospel offers the remarkable freedom of giving up the project of laying and maintaining your own foundation. It’s most radical claim is that someone else weathered the most violent storms of life in order to himself become an unshakeable foundation for you. If this is true, there is only one conclusion–frightening for those who cling to self-constructed foundations; freeing for those who can’t keep up the charade any longer–all other ground is sinking sand.