Creative-writing teachers around the world use the trite adage “show, don’t tell” to help fledgling writers think about subtext and imagery. Although plenty of great authors are “tellers” (Charles Dickens and W.G. Sebald come to mind) who employ their command of style to convey stories, most writers are better served obeying the adage. Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel, The Lowland, is a perfect example why.
Lahiri is a giant of contemporary American fiction, having won the Pulitzer Prize for her first published book, The Interpreter Of Maladies. She often uses her own cultural history as the daughter of Bengali immigrants to create portraits of outsiders who move to North America, and since Maladies, she’s racked up numerous accolades and become a fixture on The New York Times’ bestseller list. The Lowland should be the work of an assured master, but instead comes across as a flimsy first draft, with a more interesting story lurking somewhere beyond the margins.
Born in Calcutta in the ’40s, Subhash and Udayan grow up during the unrest following India’s independence. While the moderate Subhash travels to America to become a scientist, Udayan joins a radical communist group that leads him into terrorism before his assassination by the police. Udayan’s death serves as a weak catalyst for the rest of the novel, which follows his wife, his daughter, and Subhash as they come together and fall apart over a period of 50 years.
The setting is interesting one—especially for those with only a limited knowledge of India’s modern political turmoil—but a story can’t hang on an intriguing backdrop alone. Lahiri seems to think that having that turmoil precipitate the subdued events of her novel is enough to make her characters interesting, but by describing their thoughts and actions in tame prose, she merely relays the story of a family, instead of, well, showing it. There’s no subtext, but also no stylistic mastery sweeping the story along to compensate.
Part of the problem lies in how Lahiri deals with exposition. While the first hundred pages or so of The Lowland set up the back two-thirds, it doesn’t build any tension. The first chunk simply doles out the necessary information to make the real plot start. Lengthy early scenes are succinctly summed up later on, usually with a bit more character shading than their original presentation, making much of the first sections moot. If Lahiri had cut down her work, The Lowland would move much more quickly, forcing the political tension of the past to bump up against the domestic issues of the novel’s present.
Perhaps Lahiri put in all this exposition because it was unclear where and when to dole out information. At points, the narrative shifts time and perspective for no discernable reason, as the changes reveal nothing new. Or, if the change does reveal something, it’s rendered impotent by odd placement in the book’s structure. Udayan’s death is a perfect example: Lahiri first tells it from his wife’s perspective, then returns to the scene from Udayan’s point of view at the end of the novel. The latter description does provide a better sense of this freedom fighter who’s been dead for most of the novel, but by putting it at the end, Lahiri blunts the effect, making it a coda instead of a turning point.
While The Lowland works on a structural level, it’s neither enlightening nor fun to read. Although the dramatic political change that happens in the background of the story provides a bit of a hook, Lahiri doesn’t delve into it, so the most interesting part of The Lowland remains frustratingly vague.