What is it that holds families together? A string of individuals tied to one another through the happenstance of being blood relations. For many the bond and ability to rely on one another is assumed. Yet there are disruptions in life and personal tragedies which can create schisms in the family tree - the reverberations of which can be felt for generations. This is the break in relations that Jhumpa Lahiri traces in her novel “The Lowland” where a family is followed over a period of some fifty years. Relations are held so tentatively over time, some bonding and forming unexpectedly close ties while other wither and become so distant as to make their connection virtually non-existent. So much so that at one point it’s remarked in regards to one nomadic family member that “They were a family of solitaries. They had collided and dispersed. This was her legacy. If nothing else, she had inherited that impulse from them.” Beginning with the story of two brothers in Calcutta, the novel follows how they grow to be very different individuals. After a tragic occurrence associated with the Naxalite movement (guerrilla groups of Communists formed in 1960s India) the family is split apart by grief and secrecy. The novel is set both in India and America where different family members settle. Time is shown to corrode the family bonds for some who feel its painful length creating irrevocable emotional division while others are held in a kind of limbo of feeling unable to break out of the fragility of a suspended moment.
It took me some time to get to this much-lauded novel which has been nominated for multiple prestigious prizes. Something about reading the summary of it and hearing the author give a reading didn’t capture my imagination. But I’m really glad to have read it now as it’s a highly intelligent, well-constructed novel that has stirred a lot of emotions in me. It took some time to get into it as for some time it felt as if the author were only reeling off information rather than weaving the details of a particular time and place into the lives of her original characters. But as I grew to understand the distinct lives she evoked and their points of view the book took hold of me. It carried me on this family’s journey as their relations splinter apart.
Lahiri raises questions about our sense of place and belonging. Quite often when we don’t feel at home we set out into the world to make a home of our own. Such is the case for one character who moves to a small, sparsely-populated part of America and feels “He didn’t belong, but perhaps it didn’t matter. He wanted to tell her that he had been waiting all his life to find Rhode Island. That it was here, in this minute but majestic corner of the world, that he could breathe.” Finding a space in the world where we can assert our own individuality can release us from the constraints and expectations of family life. Lahiri elegantly describes this process is necessary for a person to fully come into themselves, but also creates a loss felt from breaking a lineage of tradition and sours the expectations of parents.
There is a complex portrait of the way time and expectation filter into the next generation in this novel. For a new mother “there was an acute awareness of time, of the future looming, accelerating. The baby’s lifetime, so scant, already outdistancing and outpacing her own. This was the logic of parenthood.” Children can give an individual a sense of possibility, especially for a future that’s been marred by the entanglements of personal disappointment. However, rather than emboldening someone to charge forth and clear a safe path for their progeny “The Lowland” shows that children can sometimes only serve as unwanted and empty vessels of hope for a parent. Lahiri observes that “Most people trusted in the future, assuming that their preferred version of it would unfold. Blindly planning for it, envisioning things that weren’t the case. This was the working of the will. This was what gave the world purpose and direction. Not what was there but what was not.” What the author goes on to show in her story is that loss and tragedy can create a scupper in the desire for time’s progression and a family’s continuation. When this is the case it can lead to nothing more than total self-reliance and isolation. Throughout the novel a large family home in India built to serve a residence for multiple generations gradually is left empty of those it was built for – a potent symbol of a failed vision of the future.
Interestingly, Lahiri notes the way the internet has drastically altered the way we relate to each other and creates a virtual level playing field. “A revolutionary concept, already taken for granted. Citizens of the Internet dwell free from hierarchy.” Yet, she is mindful of the way it’s another plain that can be a mental projection for all our expectations and can fall short of these. “Too much information, and yet, in her case, not enough. In a world of diminishing mystery, the unknown persists.” The internet can kindle and re-forge personal connections and eagerly yield swaths of data. But it’s always through a particular perspective and will always have limitations.
“The Lowland” had the unusual ability of pulling me into its story and making me care deeply about the fate of its characters without my even realizing it. This is an effect caused from finely polished prose that draw you through the day to day details of characters’ lives while providing brief glimmers of deep emotion. This forms a bond to the protagonists which sneaks up on you. The book builds to a scene from a particular character’s perspective which was left out of the beginning to create a heart-breaking effect. Lahiri is a novelist with such an assured sense of style, clear thinking and far-reaching sympathy.