Cover to Cover

New fiction from Jhumpa Lahiri, and the joy of singing with others

The Lowland
Jhumpa Lahiri

Opening sentences, Jhumpa Lahiri wrote not long ago, “need to contain a charge. A live current, which shocks and illuminates.” That isn’t what you expect to hear from a short-story writer and novelist whose quiet work, I’m not the first to note, resists pithy quotation—and, until now, has avoided fireworks. But here goes, from her new book, The Lowland: “East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque.”

Shock and illuminate? Not exactly, but that first sentence works like a slow fuse. The novel, her second, “splits in two” in radically unfamiliar ways. Divided consciousness has been Lahiri’s recurrent theme: “the intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world, and fluent in the new,” that she experienced as the daughter of Bengali immigrants. The transplanted Indian families in her earlier work, who uneasily navigate middle-class American life, know the feeling well.

This time, Lahiri daringly redraws the map. In Calcutta, one of two close-knit brothers becomes a Maoist revolutionary in the late 1960s, while the other proceeds to the U.S. For both—and for a wife and daughter, too—loyalties are tested, twisted to extremes that become appallingly clear only toward the end. Lahiri’s prose is blunter, less mellifluous: here worlds, new and old, contain terrors.

Stacy Horn says her voice isn’t great, and quotes the co-founder of the Choral Society of Grace Church in Manhattan to back herself up. “It’s true,” he told her at her audition three decades ago. “You don’t have a pretty voice.” He then transformed her life by adding, “But your pitch is solid,” and welcoming her into a group where she has found happiness she is bursting to share. In this one-of-a-kind celebration of singing with others, I’d call her pitch nearly perfect.

Horn evokes a devotional experience that has nothing to do with formal devoutness. Belonging to a chorus is a salve for the heart—a word that comes up often as she explores “all the benefits that come from being in the middle of a song,” blending in eclectic musical history and idiosyncratic memoir along the way. She duly invokes brain studies too. (Who doesn’t these days?) But Horn’s real feat is to soar beyond a purely, well, instrumental focus as she conveys the joys that await an amateur voice. The thrill of being caught up in rare and rigorous communion, not just with a composer’s creation but with other voices, is contagious. In a dramatic moment during a performance, her conductor’s arm rises high, his fingers outstretched: “Now!,” his gestures tell Horn, and who wouldn’t want to respond? “Let loose your hearts NOW.”