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Drowning in 'The Lowland'

Suchita posted on 18th September


By Ruchika Chanana

So, by now you’ve already heard that the book is about two brothers who grow up in Kolkata, then go their separate ways; that the backdrop of the novel is the Naxalite movement as it began in West Bengal; that there is a female protagonist who is connected to both men…and of course you know about the tag of ‘immigrant angst’ that this Man Booker Shortlisted book has been given.

I thought Interpreter of Maladies was a good start. I felt The Namesake was better as a film. And I haven’t read Unaccustomed Earth, but I am fairly confident it will have a young Indian person moving to the US, producing a family, and being caught in the web of the identity crises and internal conflicts that arise from that transmigration. The Lowland is about just this. However, unlike some other immigrant fiction {read: Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche}, the characters are uninspiring, and the trajectory of their lives is dull. The child’s growing up is described in much greater detail than I need, and the mother’s never-ending disconnectedness is inexplicable, although her despair is contagious {keep those sleeping pills away from me}. The father is termed weak, yet he comes across most strong ­– but then perhaps that was the intention. Their professions are fascinating, though – marine biologist, professor of Hegelian philosophy, locavore farm-hand. This, to me, reveals the breadth of Lahiri’s interests and knowledge {I read somewhere that she has taught herself to read Italian}. What I cannot understand is why her intellectual depth doesn’t infect her stories much.

As a writer, Lahiri has a lyrical tone that works beautifully for descriptions of New England in autumn, or a water hyacinth-covered pond in Tollygunge. Her language is fluent, its ebbs and flows well constructed. But it all tends to become rather laboured. She says the same thing in three sentences, each more lyrically pungent than the one before. The inner workings of the characters are remarkably etched, and we totally get what they are thinking. But the ‘why’ eludes me. The plot itself goes no further than basic. I like that the political events are only a backdrop, gentle catalysts for our story, but the movement back and forth in time to explain ‘what really happened’ are plain painstaking. Even at the very end, she leaves us with an excruciatingly long retelling of a pivotal but past event that we have long since imagined already. I am caught up in a sentimental, cloying atmosphere, syrupy in its attempted realism, but ultimately drowning me in just too much feeling.

Notes in our Little Black Book |

The Lowland; by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Verdict | Pick up this book if you like extensive, multigenerational stories in the immigrant genre; or if you have a penchant for Man Booker Shortlisters.

Publisher: Vintage

Price: INR 499

About the author | Ruchika Chanana is a writer, editor and a "highly opinionated reader". Check out her 2 minute reviews on