The Lowland is an astonishingly well-written novel. Lahiri’s prose just demands to be called ‘limpid’, and is executed with a precision and clarity that I haven’t enjoyed in a long time. The story however is just brutal; blow after blow of outright emotional violence which, combined with that cut-glass linguistic virtuosity, means the whole experience is akin to getting glassed with Waterford Crystal.
Her body, in spite of its years, was as stubbornly intact as the muddy green teapot, shaped vaguely like an Aladdin’s lamp, a wedge of cork in its lid, that she’d bought for a dollar as a yard sale in Rhode Island. It still kept her company during her hours of writing. It had survived her flight to California, wrapped up in a cardigan, and served her still.
In writing this I am faced with a dilemma. Well, two dilemmas. The first is the same old problem I have with talking about stuff I like – it’s always much easier to riff on annoyances or irritations than it is to explain why something works brilliantly for me – and the other is that this is obviously a literary novel chock full of Themes and Allusions and Big Ideas and it’s difficult for me to write about something like that without sounding, at best, a bit wanky.
That being the case, the temptation is to start with the plot and go from there, but in many ways the plot is the least interesting thing about this book. It starts with a pair of brothers in 1960’s Calcutta, and spirals away from there over the next half century. Subhash is the elder – sober, responsible, studious – and Udayan the younger – passionate, ideological, charismatic – and when Subhash goes away to further his studies in America, Udayan stays at home, get caught up in a Maoist uprising, marries against his parents’ wishes, and then gets murdered by the police. This all happens within the first quarter of the book, which then carries us up to the present day following Subhash, Udayan’s pregnant widow Gauri, and their daughter Bela through a series of acutely and dispassionately observed emotional catastrophes.
This chronological sweep feels like should impart a certain epicness to the tale, and yet all the major action happens off-stage or in flashback; the telling itself is almost painstakingly, and painfully, intimate. That concatenation of time is clearly one of those Themes I mentioned, and it’s tempting to assume that this is another one of those stories about the impotence of individuals swept up in the tides of history. That would be a false assumption; what’s happening here is considerable less grandiose or trite.
Her strongest image was always of time, both past and future; it was an immediate horizon, at once orienting her and containing her. Across the limitless spectrum of years, the brief tenancy of her own life was superimposed…
Only the present moment, lacking any perspective, eluded her grasp. It was like a blind spot, just over her shoulder. A hole in her vision.
This is, I think, a novel about choices, (but then aren’t they all?) and the thing is, while the choices the characters make are by turns shocking, appalling, or brutal, they never come across as bad. Every choice is utterly justified and neither the characters nor the author ever look to excuse or seek forgiveness for the negative repercussions of their decisions. This is what happened, this is what will happen, and this is how we live with it. The tone – lucid and keen, yet both impartial and removed – is the perfect complement to this, and that’s what makes this such a special book: it’s not just that the style is good, but that it fits. A perfectly harmonious union of style and content that is simultaneously horrifying and beautiful. Extraordinary stuff.