So it's not surprising that Subhash and Udayan’s oneness crumbles—first into two-ness, then into many unhappy pieces. Even as another prize nomination has come Lahiri’s way—she was just longlisted for the National Book Award—critics are feeling mixed, and her Man Booker odds are slipping. Her plot has been judged “operatic” and her narration “clinical,” and it's true enough that the novel’s setup turns on both dramatic flourishes and formulas. Subhash, the quiet, timid half of the pair, slips off to Rhode Island to burrow into environmental chemistry at a university not far from the beach. Udayan, the garrulous, daring half, sneaks into Calcutta’s thronging streets to join a violent communist movement—and before long, he is hunted down by the police, who execute him in front of the family home. The upheaval settles into a peculiar new family arrangement. Subhash marries Gauri, the pregnant bride Udayan has abruptly widowed. They go “home” to the sand dunes of New England, as if returning from an uncomplicated honeymoon. They set out to raise a child, Bela, together—a strange family in a strange land.
If this were another author’s work, Subhash and Udayan’s coming-apart might be mended through Subhash and Gauri’s coming-together. If this were Lahiri’s earlier work, nothing would be seamlessly mended, yet nothing would be destroyed beyond recognition either. But in Lahiri’s new work the terrain is bleaker than ever before. Their hearts and lives shattered, her characters seek distance from one another with a ferocity that can look an awful lot like misanthropy.
It was not until days after I finished The Lowland that I realized the strangeness of what I felt—what I think Lahiri wants readers to feel—about one character in particular, Gauri. My thoughts kept returning to her, not to the two brothers or her young daughter, who receive most of Lahiri’s characteristically evocative attention to detail and emotion.
Gauri is a one-of-a-kind Lahiri character: She pushes away readers, as well as fellow characters, with unfamiliar fierceness. She repels, but not in the simultaneously compelling and nuanced way other figures in Lahiri’s work have. For Gauri, the arrival of motherhood and family life in America fuels cold-blooded go-it-alone-ness. She does not, cannot bond with Subhash or Bela, and it isn’t that she simply wishes parenthood were different; she wishes it away. Leaving her young daughter home alone, Gauri keeps slipping away in the afternoons—never long or far enough to get noticed—until one day she doesn’t come back. She escapes to California for good.
Here is a woman whose cruelty is quietly domestic: She is a bad wife and a bad mother. It is Udayan, by contrast, who has all the makings of the perfect modern villain: the revolutionary who spins out of control, in thrall to ever more extremist ideology, ready to compromise intimates and kill innocents. But Lahiri seems to suggest that Gauri is, if anything, the more troubling menace. She may be a less explosive example of immigrant dislocation, but her rootless loneliness—more than Udayan’s radical zeal—is the scariest brand of extremism in this book.