It's not intended as a criticism when I say that Jhumpa Lahiri's new novel is two-thirds epilogue. If The Lowland declines to conform to a conventional three-act structure, it's only because reality often does the same thing. Some people's lives are all buildup with no payoff; for Lahiri's characters, life is largely aftermath.
The book introduces itself to the reader as a novel about two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, growing up in Calcutta in the 1960s. Udayan is bold, brilliant and headstrong; he spends his college days becoming enmeshed in a radical political movement. Older by 15 months, Subhash is the cautious, methodical one; he leaves for Rhode Island to pursue a doctorate in oceanography. The passage from India to the U.S. is as much a structural part of Lahiri's novels as paragraphs and chapters: Subhash leaves Calcutta "as he had stepped so many mornings out of dreams, its reality and its particular logic rendered meaningless in the light of day."
Meanwhile, when the police start cracking down on his political group, Udayan, now married, goes into hiding. The police find him. Then they shoot him in front of his family. It feels like the novel's climax, the defining event in the lives of everyone concerned--but it's only the end of the first act.
Subhash, against his parents' wishes, marries Udayan's wife Gauri, who is pregnant, and returns to the U.S. with her. They set up house together in a dorm in Rhode Island, where "the gray- and white-skinned trees ... looked incapable of ever producing leaf or fruit," and raise Udayan's child as their own. But their marriage is a threadbare thing, fashioned from grief, gallantry and wishful thinking. Passion and true intimacy will be late arrivals, if they come at all.
Some of this is familiar territory for Lahiri, but unlike in her first novel, The Namesake, emigration isn't the subject; it's just part of the stage machinery. The true subject of The Lowland is time. Lahiri tracks, with the patience and tenacity of a biologist researching long-term migrations, the emotional and geographical distances that time opens up between people, the things that get lost in those spaces, and the rare and surprising things that endure. In The Lowland, we are all emigrants, not from one country to another but from the present to the future.
Lahiri's prose style is legendarily smooth, unshowy, unvarying. If it has altered even slightly since The Namesake or even since her first story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, which appeared in 1999, it is only to become more itself. Its glassy surface is now untroubled even by quotation marks. Her tone remains utterly the same regardless of what she's describing, whether it's Udayan's execution, Subhash shopping in a supermarket or Gauri, in her lustless marriage, masturbating in a bathroom to a fantasy about a stranger. It makes The Lowland a slow burn--thrillwise, Lahiri is pretty much the anti-Crichton--but it gains tremendous power as it goes on. Language takes on the role of time itself. The Lowland feels less like a story being told than a tide slowly going out, gradually, inevitably revealing the shape of what was there all along.