Lowland Lahiri

Knopf, 2013

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (2013)

“Naxalbari is an inspiration. It’s an impetus for change.”

One brother in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel is a member of the Naxalbari movement, Udayan. His involvement with the far-left radical Communist group in Calcutta vitally impacts the entire family, even Subhash, who leaves for the United States in the late 1960s.

“You’re the other side of me, Subhash. It’s without you that I’m nothing. Don’t go.
It was the only time he’d admitted such a thing. He’d said it with love in his voice. With need.”

The Lowland is a highly emotive work, considering political and familial relationships of great intensity, but the tone is staid and controlled.

Instead, Jhumpa Lahiri uses landscape to express some of that intensity.

“The following day she’d walked with her father to campus to see torn branches scattered on the quadrangle, streets green with leaves. They found a thick tree that had fallen, the tangled roots exposed. They saw the drenched ground that had given way. The tree seemed more overwhelming when it lay on the ground. Its proportions frightening, once it no longer lived.”

Whether India or America, the sense of place is important in this novel. Characters connect as much to landscape as to each other.

“He wanted to tell her that he had been waiting all his life to find Rhode Island. That it was here, in this minute but majestic corner of the world, that he could breathe.”

In fact, sometimes the connection to landscape is more immediately recognizable than emotional ties. And the land endures in unexpected ways.

“She was unprepared for the landscape to be so altered. For there to be no trace of that evening, forty autumns ago.”

The setting of this novel is expansive, both in terms of time and place, and the author works to infuse a similar sense of timelessness in the prose.

“It was in English that the past was unilateral; in Bengali, the word for yesterday, kal, was also the word for tomorrow. In Bengali one needed an adjective, or relied on the tense of a verb, to distinguish what had already happened from what would be.”

The first and last sections of the novel employ a distinct voice, which emphasizes the idea that this story considers the specific experiences of a single family but it is, also, a representation of a broader, sweeping story. Readers not only have the sense that the story has happened, is happening and will happen, but that is has/is/will repeatedly, as part of the human experience.

Throughout The Lowland, there are striking moments of beauty, recognizable to loyal readers of Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction. These are most evident around the question of setting, sometimes predominantly in her use of language (a shoreline receding, “resting calmly like a thin brown snake upon the water”) and other times in her use of detail:

“Once more the leaves of the trees lost their chlorophyll, replaced by the shades he had left behind: vivid hues of cayenne and turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning in the kitchen, to season the food his mother prepared.”

Jamal Air Sweet

HarperCollins, 2014

Her prose has a unique rhythm that can seem distancing and dry in one reading mood, precise and deliberate in another. Not all readers will respond with equal enthusiasm and even devoted Lahiri readers might find themselves varyingly responsive to her work. Nonetheless, The Lowland is skillfully crafted, its characters memorable and its themes resonant.

Tasneem Jamal’s Where the Air is Sweet (2014)

When Idi Adim expelled 80,000 South Asians from Uganda in 1972, many families were forced to leave the region in short order, amid upheaval and violence.

Tasneem Jamal’s novel opens with a window upon that time, but then readers are cast back to 1921, putting down roots in Uganda along with the characters who come to call that territory home.

Where the Air is Sweet takes readers by the hand affording them the opportunity to explore attentively and exhaustively. The following descriptive passage offers a glimpse of the author’s capacity to balance the macro and micro scales of change and flux, detail and expanse.

“Mumtaz has never walked through a tea estate. She looks down at the leaves. Each one is a different shade of green. The new, young ones, some of them still rolled up, are bright green, their leaves almost transparent. The older ones are darker and thicker, some glowing and healthy, some beginning to dry out. Many of the leaves have brown spots on them, and some of their edges are uneven. From the road, the tea estates are a rolling sea of uniform green. At times, Mumtaz has been struck by their lush beauty, particularly when the clouds are dark and varied and threatening, leaving her with a sensation that the earth is overwhelmingly fertile. But most of the time, Mumtaz hardly notices them; the endless green impresses her no more than the endless blue of the sky. But up close, the tea leaves fascinate her, draw her in.”

Mumtaz is at the heart of the novel and the dramatic scene which opens the novel sustains a quiet tension throughout, as the arc of the story curves and eventually knits together.

Readers require more of an interest in interpersonal relations than political, however, as the characters respond to the unrest in different and curious ways. Differing approaches to valuing and protecting stability are presented when chaos erupts. Identities shift as required. Risks outweigh pleasures and safe havens create their own stresses and strains.

Where the Air is Sweet is a remarkable debut which presents endless tea leaves and skies alongside close-ups of one family’s struggle to create a home amidst shifting borders.

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

Krista Foss’ Smoke River (2014)
The question of belonging is at the heart of this debut novel, which presents a wide cast of characters who are struggling to cultivate and nurture their roots and interconnections.

“Divisions stripe their people like plaid. There are those who belong to the other tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy – Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca, Onondaga, Tuscarora – among them some who resent the Mohawks’ pre-eminence, their persistent activism, their nationalism. There are those who follow the old longhouse religion and buy their groceries and play bingo beside all variety of Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals, evangelicals, and atheists. Within their own faith are those who believe an oral version of the Great Law that prohibits war and violence, and those who follow a written version, which interprets resistance as using whatever means necessary.”

Krista Foss’ use of language is primarily uncomplicated, but occasionally an image bursts forth. A man is jaundiced like a stewpot chicken or a woman wears her tiredness like a heavy coat: readers have the sense that a narrative immersed in a single character’s perspective would allow the author’s focus to shift from plot to voice.

Nonetheless, Smoke River is preoccupied with the battle over a plot of land, which is integrally connected to broader questions of identity for a number of characters in a southwestern-Ontario tobacco country. The intersection of the sacred and the profitable creates an abundance of material: conflict grows and pages turn. The fundamental question of what (and who) is of value lurks beneath.

“Native women were tossed from cars like fast-food wrappers; their bones were plucked clean by coyotes and vultures; they disappeared with nothing left but poster pictures and the water-drip torture of hope.”

Smoke River’s characters are well-developed and readers are afforded the opportunity to inhabit all sides of the issues via their rotating perspectives; Krista Foss presents a solid narrative which leaves room for complications and complexities.

Have you read any of these? Or, are they on your TBR stack or list?