I have two younger brothers, young enough that I have been able to watch their dynamic shift as they grew to become their own people, rather than puppies in a litter. Exactly two years apart in age, they are intensely different but deeply connected: giggling roommates, yet crippling competitors.

The Lowland

Jhumpa Lahiri
Alfred A Knopf Publishing

Brothers have been a cornerstone of literature since stories were written on papyrus. The passion, the resentment, the emotionally charged competition between brothers has obvious biblical ties, and authors can’t seem to resist the concept of people tied by blood and background, but not necessarily by love.

In the magnificent “The Lowland,” Jhumpa Lahiri introduces us to two archetypal brothers: Udayan, the young, brash revolutionary, and his intellectual and reserved older brother Subhash, living in post-partition Calcutta. Though the premise is predictable — one brother delves deeply into the violent Marxist movement in Calcutta while the other retreats from social responsibility and moves to the United States — Lahiri skillfully roots the story in people rather than politics.

The Pulitzer Prize winner has spent the 14 years since her debut short-story collection, “Interpreter of Maladies,” sticking closely to what she knows: Insightful character pieces of intellectual Indian-Americans adapting to life in New England. By beginning her tale in frenzied and precarious India, there is already a noticeable shift in the magnitude and ambition of the novel.

This broad change in location does not affect the heart of Lahiri’s talent: her ability to create dynamic characters with both small gestures and broad strokes. Though dialogue is sparse, the relationship between the two brothers and later on, their relationships with their wives, are established with subtle language and reflective daily actions.

At the beginning of the book, Subhash and Udayan (the instigator) decide to sneak onto a local golf course reserved for the British, and with little description or analysis, Lahiri shows their brotherly bond: “Subhash felt the weight of his brother’s foot, the worn sole of his sandal, then his whole body, bearing down for an instant.” Subhash consistently feels overpowered by his larger-than-life brother, and Lahiri deftly describes this without losing focus on the plot.

At times, the plot quickens, sweeping through 20 years in two pages, then slows to spend an entire chapter describing a crucial moment. Lahiri’s careful prose and focus on character development assures that her pacing is never harried or awkward.

All her characters are sympathetic but still have very real flaws that we recognize with exquisite intimacy. Traces of her former stories shine through: An unhappy housewife unable to connect with her daughter, a walk on the beach that becomes significant in years to come, a woman widowed before her time.

Though the novel powerfully stands alone, as a Lahiri disciple it seems as though her former tales were all leading up to this magnum opus. “The Lowland” is both a soaring, cross-continental, cross-generational view of a shifting culture, and a quiet examination of the meaning of family.

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