“What is Given, What Is Taken Away”: Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland

lowlandUdayan is beside him. They are walking together in Tollygunge, across the lowland, over the hyacinth leaves. They carry a putting iron, some golf balls in their hands.

In Ireland, too, the ground is drenched, uneven. He takes it in a final time, knowing he will never visit this place again. He walks toward another stone and stumbles, reaching out to it, steadying himself. A marker, toward the end of his journey, of what is given, what is taken away.

I finished Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland last night, so I can move at least one book from my “currently reading” to my “recently read” pile. But how much did my response to the book change in the process? Not a lot, actually. Obviously, my understanding of its parts and its story is now fuller, but to the end it was a book that kept me at an emotional distance. It proceeds so quietly the effect is almost monotonous: love, grief, violence, rage are all offered in the same register, with nothing rising above the level of quiet declaration.

Tone isn’t everything, of course, and the understatement of Lahiri’s prose can have memorable effects: quiet touches of description or the affectionate touch of a hand make emotional ripples in the overriding calm; the explosion of gunfire or of anger startles all the more for the lack of exclamation points: “A sound like gushing water or a torrent of wind”; “How dare you set foot in this house.” Is it enough to always hint at depths, though? to suggest effects so delicately that we have to assume them, or read them into, rather than in, the language of the novel? There were times when Lahiri’s control felt excessive, even deceptive: why choose subjects — why tell stories — that invoke extremes, only to muffle them? The novel is governed by an overwhelming reserve: to what end, I found myself wondering? With a first-person narrator (Colm Toibin’s Eilis, for example) we might attribute the narrative caution to the character and find it psychologically illuminating, but here the spare elegance struck me almost as an affectation, a studied determination not to let the emotional force of the novel loose.

I wondered too about the structure of the novel. It spans great distances and stretches of time, but it moves across them like a skipped rock, skimming along the surface: the narrative touches down lightly and we find days, weeks, months, years have passed with only the slightest points of contact and no depth. There are hundreds of potential pages missing that would thicken our understanding of the people whose lives we’re following and the changing times they live in, as well as the points of contrast and comparison between the two worlds we alternate between — but these possibilities too are held in check, the outlines of the family saga shaded in rather than richly tinted. Lahiri’s strategy of interweaving past and present allows for the surprise of revelations about people’s motives and feelings – but why is that preferable to immersing us in those actions and consequences as they unfold, so that we can enter into the emotional lives of the characters? Gauri in particular, I thought, suffered from this strategy of delay: her behavior towards Subhash and Bela makes much more sense, in its cold equivocations, once we know how her love for Udayan was compromised (“she looked at him as she’d never looked before. It was a look of disillusion”). Lahiri holds us at bay, forcing a certain detachment, but why?

Why not? you might quite reasonably respond; clearly that is the kind of novel she wanted to write, one in which love or suffering is no less real for its understatement. And her prose can be lovely — delicate, precise, evocative. That it provoked me to wonder how we decide when “spare” writing crosses over into “superficial” is as much a reflection on me as a reader as on her as a writer.  The Lowland seemed to be putting style first. It’s edited to a nicety, but I don’t read novels primarily to admire the writing as writing: I want to feel that this writing is carrying me somewhere that only this novel can take me. For me, Lahiri’s restraint became a constraint: though I read it with some interest and some pleasure, both were limited by the limits she herself set on how far she would let herself go.

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