The literary awards season is just warming up, with its distractions that reduce the relative merit of contending books and authors to the bookmakers odds, and Jhumpa Lahiris new novel has already been in contention (for the Booker) even before publication. But may I suggest that when you pick up The Lowland, you shut out that din, and to get its measure, instead, place it alongside her previous books, two collections of short stories (Interpreter of Maladies, the staggeringly piercing Unaccustomed Earth) and the novel The Namesake, and weigh this question: isnt she now in an orbit all her own, a writer who no longer needs the qualifying adjective Chekhovian to convey the power of her fiction, one who has joined a small cohort of living novelists and short story writers by nominating herself as a standard to evaluate others efforts
It is arguable who is the central character of The Lowland, Subhash or his brother Udayan, separated by just 15 months but pulling together, twin-like, through all the paces of their growing up in Calcuttas Tollygunge till the Naxalbari uprising in 1967 throws them into separate universes, one to chasing higher studies in the United States and Udayan to Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyals call to make a new sun and a new moon shine in the sky Gauri, once married to Udayan and, upon his encounter death, rescued by Subhash to the opportunities in American academia but determined to shut all contact with her intimate circle in order to lock away the terrible secret she harbours about her own contact with the young revolutionaries Or Bela, the daughter she abandons but who will be the one to reconcile the separate tragedies that befell her family, the silences and estrangements following from Udayans death in full view of his Tollygunge home
Or, to put it somewhat differently, where does the novels pivot lie In Udayans death and the incident that took his life in a never-really-was revolution that he did not fully comprehend In Gauris realisation that memory cannot be defeated Or is this, in fact, an epic novel of tiny anchors that hold together its sprawl, of Subhashs adjustments to his immigrant life and the circumstances of his nuclear family, of giving and giving, of providing and learning to let go, till he finds he has thereby gained emotional stability and of Belas determination to be unbeaten by the specifics of her inheritance without repudiating it.
Lahiri keeps these questions edgy, and beyond easy resolution, by the quality of her prose in conveying the depth of her characters interior landscape, seamlessly tagging their conversations with other people to their internal dialogue, leaving them in the course of the narrative only to catch up with them, whether a day or years later, without hurrying through the changed circumstances. The storytelling is never impatient and the detail, layer upon layer, of the moment in focus heightens the tension that inevitably appears to set them on course for eventualities beyond their capacity to handle. It brings to mind two sentences from Lahiris introduction to Mavis Gallants collection of short stories, The Cost of Living: The smallest details stick like burrs. And: Never have characters so adrift been so effectively anchored.
As too, given The Lowlands political backdrop to an intensely personal story, a line from her introduction to RK Narayans Malgudi short stories: In spite of the inevitable evolution and revolution of nations, the peace and well-being of mankind, Narayan seems to suggest, depends on a world that is predictable, precisely because the human condition is anything but those things.
Whod be brave, and perhaps foolish, enough to plainly list what those things the human condition is. But in continuing to explore so masterfully honestly, intimately, largeheartedly what it could be, Lahiri is joining the ranks of writers she says she has drawn inspiration from.