Jhumpa Lahiri has been an uncommonly sensitive, elegant, and restrained writer. Her first book, the short story collection Interpreter of Maladies, won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. This was followed by the novel The Namesake and a second short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth. Her latest book, The Lowland, is another novel. In it we are told of the effects of the killing of Udayan Mitra, an Indian Maoist revolutionary, on his family: his wife, parents, brother, and even his unborn child. After his death they largely emotionally shut down, cutting themselves off from others. This is least true of Udayan’s brother, Subhash, who also shows himself the most generous. Yet even he seems to have not much joy in life despite the love he has for Udayan’s daughter, whom he raises as his own, and his satisfaction in his scientific career. Until late in life, his generosity goes largely unrewarded.
The cast of sad characters is plausible and they are dealt with realistically, not sentimentally. In the hands of another, less sensitive, writer, the reader might lose patience with some of the characters, but in Ms. Lahri’s hands each of them maintains one’s interest throughout. Perhaps flawlessly, Ms. Lahiri depicts the emotional lives of her characters. While some of them are not without moral reflection, it is their emotions that predominate in their inner lives, and this seems to be in tune with her realism. In tune with her restrained sensibility, Ms. Lahiri presents her characters and their actions with little, if any, comment. There is none of the moral robustness of, say, Jane Austen or George Eliot. Her depiction of emotions is also rather restrained as is the manner in which she provides hope to some of her characters. The one way she breaks with her restraint is that this tale includes some sexually explicit scenes, something I do not recall in any of the other of her tales I have read. I do not think the novel is the better for them.
While Ms. Lahiri’s first novel was by no means bad, it left me thinking her a much stronger short story writer than novelist. I am less sure of that after reading The Lowland. In part this is because, while the novel covers many years, huge swaths of time are skipped over, being at most briefly characterized or described. This does not make The Lowland a novel in name but actually a series of short stories or anecdotes, but I think it does play to the strength of the author in providing strong protrayals of the emotional lives of her characters and deemphasizes narrative a bit. The plot is interesting enough, more so, to my mind, than that of The Namesake. yet it really is as an insightful explorer of the human heart, a powerful painter of our emotions, that Ms, Lahiri is to be valued.