Set in Calcutta from the 1950s up to the modern day, The Lowland tells the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who lead markedly different lives. Subhash is focused on his education and career, and emigrates to better his prospects; Udayan becomes wrapped up in the Naxalite movement and is ultimately executed by the police. The two brothers are connected by the lowland, a small area of land behind their house which Lahiri uses to symbolise their relationship and where Udayan is shot. This all happens relatively early on and the novel primarily concentrates on Subhash’s feelings towards his brother and his relationship with his family (including with Udayan’s widow), and more generally on the conflicts between risk-taking and passivity, and acting on emotion or pragmatism.
On the face of it, this has the potential to be an excellent book, aided by Lahiri’s richly symbolic prose. And while at times the symbolism is a little heavy-handed, it never feels didactic as the book does not labour one particular message. Instead these characters are presented to us and we are invited to reflect on them and their choices. Sadly, The Lowland doesn’t meet its potential. Lahiri is trying to do too much in too small a space and in covering 50-something years and four generations, I found it hard to care about her characters in the time she gave them. Moreover, few if any of her characters really develop, instead displaying fixed patterns of behaviours throughout. Given I can think of at least one better example of a book dealing with similar themes in a similar location at a similar time, I wouldn’t consider The Lowland worth reading except for a similar project, or for those who have a particular interest in Lahiri.
From my reading about Lahiri, it is possible that she is a better short story writer than a novelist. Although her other novel, The Namesake, has been widely praised, Interpreter of Maladies appears to have attracted the most acclaim and I plan on reading some of her short stories given the quality of her style. The Lowland could well have been a poor choice as an introduction to her.