Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Jhumpa Lahiri, _The Lowland_

FINISHED THIS JUST as her book about deciding to write in Italian started getting attention, and wondered whether the change in language meant a change in subject matter as well, since her fiction has almost entirely been about first- and second-generation immigrants from India to the United States (particularly from Calcutta to New England). The two short stories in the new book, I learn from Tim Parks's review, are (a) very good and (b) not about Indian immigrants. A good way to make yourself do something different, I suppose--worked for Beckett.

So far, I like Lahiri's short stories somewhat better than I did her novels, but the novels are certainly readable...well-crafted, well-observed, emotionally complex...The Lowland has the added interest of a historical dimension, since its main characters are from the Midnight Children's generation.

Parks's review cast the novel in a new light for me, though, in raising the possibility that speaking and writing in Italian would put some distance between Lahiri and her family.

The most riveting moments in The Lowland involve intimate betrayal. Naxalite militant Udayan involves his new wife Gauri in his activities, exposing her to serious danger without letting her know what risks she is running. Then, after Udayan is killed by the police, the pregnant Gauri is taken in by Udayan's straight-arrow marine biologist brother Subhash, but Gauri leaves Subhash and her young daughter behind to go teach philosophy somewhere that sounds a lot like the Claremont Colleges. She doesn't contact them even once--talking about putting some distance.

Gauri's behavior struck our book club as inexplicable, and an interesting thing about the novel is that Lahiri doesn't try to explain it. There are signals enough that Gauri is not that attached to her family or her new circumstances in Rhode Island, but she makes her decision off-stage, so to speak, while husband and daughter are in India, and we do not get any interiorized view of whatever doubts or anguish she may be feeling, leaving one to suppose that whatever doubts or anguish there may have been did not amount too much. She just...leaves. Regrets? Not so much.

Lahiri could well have done a lot more to make Gauri's exit more a Nora Helmer scene, more feminist-tinged, but she just does not. Surprising but interesting.

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