If you were to pass one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters in the supermarket there would be very little to tell you her heart was breaking.
On the surface, the Bengali-Americans Lahiri has conjured in her previous three works of fiction have achieved the American dream.
They’ve earned degrees and secured terrific jobs, like Gogol’s parents in Lahiri’s debut novel, “The Namesake.” Travel back home is increasingly possible, as it is for the characters in her 2008 collection, “Unaccustomed Earth.”
And yet each crop of additions comes with an undercurrent of subtractions in Lahiri’s fiction. The past recedes, and so many of them feel adrift, like ice floes in a melting sea. Most of what makes them who they are was left behind long ago.
In such a universe, it’s understandable why a man who says something like, “I know what it is like to be lonely,” can undo a woman’s resolve.
Lahiri’s lyrical second novel, “The Lowland,” marks a turn in this trajectory, as what appears to be a subtraction is in fact a dangerous substitution. One bound to explode in the face of the characters who hold its secret.
The novel revolves around two brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, born a year apart, but in possession of very different temperaments. Udayan takes risks and questions authority; Subhash is timid and respects his parents’ desires above all else.
The book begins in Calcutta just after partition when the nature of what India would become was still unclear. The Mitras live on the edge of the Tolly Club, a colonial golf course, built so the British could be amongst their own kind.
Near the club there are two ponds, separated by lowland. “After the monsoon the ponds would rise so that the embankment built between them could not be seen,” Lahiri writes.
“The flooded plain was thick with water hyacinth,” Lahiri continues. “Its leaves caused the surface to appear solid. Green in contrast to the blue of the sky.”
As youth, Udayan and Subhash are like these two ponds: Together so much they are like one unit, Udayan’s bravery mixes with his brother’s diligence to produce, between the two, something better, and more beautiful, than either alone.
Like so many siblings, though, they grow apart as they grow up. The wedge in “The Lowland” is the Naxalite movement, the violent, eventually Maoist uprising that sprang out of West Bengal in the late 1960s.
Udayan plunges headfirst into the movement; Subhash remains on its periphery. This is an understandable development, given the brothers’ differing personalities, but it causes a remarkably small amount of tension between them.
A bigger problem is the way Lahiri crams a refresher course on the Naxalite movement into the novel. It feels bizarre to read a novelist of such elegance writing sentences like, “In July the Central Government banned the carrying of bows and arrows in Naxalbari.”
Unlike in say, “In the City by the Sea,” Kamila Shamsie’s debut novel about Karachi, the history here feels researched, rather than felt. This would make sense were it being presented from Subhash’s point of view. Indeed, as a teenager, he leaves Calcutta and travels to Rhode Island to study maritime biology. But the history is by and large simply dumped into the novel.
Eventually it helps to move the plot along. Separated by an ocean, Subhash and Udayan assume their essential natures. Subhash becomes a diligent student whose one gamble — an affair with a white American woman — backfires. Meanwhile, back in Calcutta, Udayan takes a wife without their parents’ blessing.
Subhash hasn’t much time to nurse a grievance over his brother’s boldness. Word comes from home that his brother has been killed, and so he arrows back to Calcutta only to discover his brother’s pregnant widow, Gauri, eating on the floor of their parents’ kitchen like a beggar.
From this moment on “The Lowland” turns into a fabulous, heartbreaking tale like a Russian novel of yore set not on the steppes of the Caucasus but rather the suburbs of Providence. Subhash believes the only way he can rescue Gauri from a life of abuse is to marry her. “To take his brother’s place, to raise his child. To follow him in a way that felt perverse, that felt ordained.”
“The Lowland” makes brilliant use of this one operatic act of kindness. Subhash brings Gauri to the US. From the very beginning, she is uncomfortable in Rhode Island. She has no friends and no relatives. She is still grieving the death of her husband, the total loss of what she has left behind.
In “The Namesake,” Gogol assumes the name Nikhil as a signifier to those around him that there are things they don’t know of him. “They know him only in the present,” Lahiri has him think, “not at all in the past.”
The mournful thing about Subhash and Gauri’s life together is she could say the same of him. Gauri never reveals the extent to which she was involved in the Naxalite movement with Udayan. When their child is young, they mutually agree to wait to tell her about her true father.
These secrets create a web of silence that gradually smothers Subhash and Gauri. Time, ever the cruelest king to Lahiri’s characters, is no different to this lot.
Lahiri allows Gauri’s dilemma — being beholden to a man she does not love — to do most of the work here. Her writing is pitched downward. The sentences are crisp and short, unadorned.
Even the rare simile — “The effort flops like a just-caught fish inside her” — only serves to reinforce the sense of swallowed energy.
There is real story bravery at work here. It would have been much easier for Lahiri to keep us in the thrust and heave of political agitation — to fixate, perhaps, on the implied betrayal woven into Subhash’s rescue.
Instead, in “The Lowland,” Lahiri tells a quietly devastating story about the nature of kindness. How it is never pure and often goes largely unrewarded. It simply is, and then the floodwaters rise and obscure its role in the landscape for a time.
John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist,” forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.