Top critical review
on 22 January 2016
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland begins with an intriguing storyline, revolving around the Marxist-inspired Naxalite rebellion in 1960s Bengal, where students chose to join by violent means the cause of desperately poor peasants in that region of India. Subhash and Udayan, the sons of a Calcutta civil servant, are very close to one another. Udayan, though, is attracted to the Naxalite movement while Subhash chooses to go complete his studies in the USA. This is where the plot gets somewhat sidetracked. I don’t want to reveal too much, but Subhash ends up marrying Udayan’s girl and raising his child. The Naxalite plotline gets more or less dropped, and the story ends up dealing with the difficulties of integration and the estrangement of diaspora Indians. This is familiar territory for Lahiri, and I guess this is what she likes to write about. But the novel, which then moves down another generation again, ends up losing a common thread. Lahiri writes well, of course, but this is not up to, say, The Namesake, and the feeling is that she has written this story before. Nor does the tone vary very much. It is constantly wistful and lightly sad, with the result that the book often fails to engage the reader. Pursing the Naxalite storyline, one can’t help thinking, would have been more fruitful, more filled with potential tension and with strong, emotional choices for the characters. The Lowland is readable throughout, but it ends up feeling as something of a letdown.