by K.M. Zahrt
I’ll start with a confession: Even though Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000; even though her follow-up novel, The Namesake, was not a sophomore slump but a great success; even though she is an advisor to the President of the United States regarding arts and humanities; and even though she was appointed to the American Academy of Arts and Letters last year; I have not read her work, until now.
If I was to reorganize my bookshelves based on reader experience–based on emotional and intellectual impact–Lahiri’s latest novel, The Lowland, would be placed between Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Her prose, like Robinson’s, has a somber beauty. The story isn’t overtly compelling; the book is not a page-turner. But the writing has a cadence to it that is relaxing, like the rhythm of waves on a shore. Like Rushdie, there’s a notable storytelling style that makes everything (including lengthy descriptions) seem both ordinarily insignificant and immensely important.
In Rushdie’s memior, Joseph Anton, he poses a question of himself, “Why did that boy decide to leave it all behind and travel halfway across the world into the unknown, far from everyone who loved him and everything he knew?” (p.27). He cannot give you a definite answer; he can only conclude, “At any rate, he took the leap, and the forking paths of time bifurcated at his feet. He took the westward road and ceased to be who he might have been if he had stayed at home” (p. 28).
In many ways, Rushdie’s description sums up Lahiri’s depiction of the human experience in The Lowland. The narrative spans the life of the main character, Subhash, from young boy to grandpa. Covering a lifetime in 340 pages, Lahiri both hones in on major turning points, but also glosses over the years in between. She does so, at times, at the risk of slipping into narrative traps that can kill a story–telling instead of showing and summarizing. But she toes those lines for effect, and it works. It gives the reader a sense that the human life is both plodding and fleeting, both something to cherish and something to survive.
Regardless, to Rushdie’s point, whatever road one chooses to take after a turning point, however significant, alters the course of one’s life–for better or worse. Lahiri’s characters experience this time and again, for both triumph and failure, which only seems to lead them to one place, “Unable to fathom [their] future, severed from [their] past” (Lahiri, p. 60). One can’t help but stop at many points throughout the story to reflect upon the course of one’s own life–the major events that stand out as important memories and the blur that is everything else in between. In doing so, Lahiri imparts to the reader something about the essence of life, but like life, it’s hard pin down, to stop, to fully understand even for a moment.
For this achievement, Lahiri was recognized, once again, for consideration at least, for two of Literature’s highest honors–the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. Both would have been well deserved.