In The Lowland, we meet two brothers growing up in 1960s Calcutta: Udayan, the idealistic, younger brother who takes risks and gets himself into trouble, and Subhash, the quiet, responsible older brother constantly seeking parental approval. As the two boys grow up, they grow apart, as siblings often do. Udayan finds himself pulled into India's uprising Naxilite movement while he continues to make non-traditional choices to defy his parents. Subhash, who feels like his parents prefer his younger brother, throws himself into intellectual study and eventually pursues a degree in the States.
Though they are worlds away, Subhash learns of his brother's life through intermittent letters: Udayan has married a woman of his own choice, Gauri, and it remains unclear how involved he is in the continual political violence and drama dotting Calcutta. Subhash, in the meantime, navigates his new life in Rhode Island, his studies and a new romantic affair.
And then Jhumpa Lahiri drives a knife into her plot: Udayan has been killed.
Subhash returns home, seeking answers as to what happened and why. His parents, full of grief, remain withdrawn during his visit and refuse to explain the details. Yet, Gauri -- a new widow pregnant with Udayan's child -- tells him the whole story. In a shocking rush to honor his brother and protect his sister-in-law, he marries Gauri and they return to the U.S. in an attempt to live a patched together life.
This is where the story really begins, and Lahiri's writing shines. Her ability to portray multiple landscapes in fine detail, as well as the emotional richness of each character, pulls you in. Some aspects felt unfulfilling to me as a reader, like when Gauri makes a series of unexpectedly harsh choices that detach her from life with Subhash and her daughter, Bela; yet, such a character is a reminder that there are often people in our lives that feel unknowable, people who make decisions seemingly without regard for familial obligation or even love.
Lahiri offers gradual changes in perspective: the first half of the novel alternates between Subdash and Gauri, and then toward the end, we finally piece together some answers through the narratives of previous events by Subdash's mother and even Udayan. But what I appreciate best in The Lowland is Lahiri's insistence on the grittiness of belonging to one another. Subdash believes he is doing the right thing in raising Bela as his own, a choice that backfires in ways that he couldn't have foreseen. Gauri represents the trapped sensation of living a life she did not choose for herself, a life that happened due to events entirely outside of her control. Udayan explores the siren song of youth: how to change one's world despite not knowing how your efforts could spin out. All characters experience guilt, fear and the complexity of moving forward despite a charged past.
And to be sure, Lahiri provides a detailed look at a set of cultural values that are broken and mended against a backdrop of a period in India's history, which is complicated and difficult. Overall, she writes with emotion about the ways in which one event can spin and construct multiple lives for years to come, and how to cope with the resulting outcomes.