This is not the kind of book review where you have to wait in suspense for a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. The fact is, Jhumpa Lahiri is one of the very best American writers at work right now. It is a great injustice that Jonathan Franzen peered myopically out from the cover of Time magazine three years ago with the headline "GREAT AMERICAN NOVELIST" slapped on top of him when we live in a country where Lahiri is publishing novels. Her books are more relevant to the American experience than Franzen's, her characters are more alive than Franzen's have ever been, and everything about Lahiri's novels feels sturdier than Franzen's novels. Unlike The Corrections, which is already fading from popular memory like an embarrassing five-year-old summer jam, people will still be reading Lahiri's The Namesake a decade—two decades, five decades—from now. Lahiri is the closest thing to an American Chekhov that I've ever seen. This is partly due to the elegant frameworks that her stories are built on, and partly because Lahiri's voice is as unornamented and assured as a Russian master.
If you need evidence of that claim, look no further than Lahiri's latest novel, The Lowland (Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95). It starts with the simple structure of a fairy tale. Two brothers grow up together in Calcutta; because their births are separated by a little more than a year, they enjoy the closeness of best friends and the bonds of family in a way that very few children get to experience. Subhash is the more classically smart one, the good son who wants to travel to America and get the best education possible. Udayan is the rebellious one, the one whose intellect can't be constrained by rules; in fact, his is the kind of intelligence that can only be developed by continual chafing. A lesser writer would make The Lowland about the dynamic between the two boys, but Lahiri understands that no true opposites can spring from the same womb:
In spite of their differences one was perpetually confused with the other, so that when either name was called both were conditioned to answer. And sometimes it was difficult to know who had answered, given that their voices were nearly indistinguishable. Sitting over the chessboard they were mirror images: one leg bent, the other splayed out, chins propped on their knees.
Subhash goes to Rhode Island to study. Udayan stays home and joins the revolutionary Naxalite movement that tore India apart in the 1960s. They write letters, but their DNA-deep closeness is tested by distance and by ideology. Udayan writes Subhash to tell him he has taken a wife named Gauri. Then word comes that Udayan has died. Subhash, returning home, learns that Gauri is pregnant. Her situation in India is unpleasant, maybe even life-threatening, and so Subhash, ever the dutiful one, marries Gauri, brings her to the United States, and becomes father to Bela, her daughter with Udayan.
Theirs is not a marriage that ever concerns itself with love. When Gauri arrives at the airport, she looks at Subhash—"her brother-in-law, her husband"—and she sees him as "a milder version" of her beloved Udayan: "Compared to Udayan's, his face was like the slightly flawed impression the man at Immigration had just stamped into her passport, indicating her arrival, stamped over a second time for emphasis." Gauri is told by a smugly self-satisfied American professor: "With children the clock is reset. We forget what came before." But that is proven to be a lie; she and Subhash engage in a silent war over Bela's affections, tripping over the child's twisted roots with every interaction.
The narrative in The Lowland skips along the passage of time like a smooth stone. Bela is born, then she's a toddler, then a preteen, then an adult. Lahiri pulls back her scope until we see entire life spans, demonstrating how the decisions we make build, one on top of the other, until we become the people we are. When Bela is 4, Lahiri writes that she is "developing a memory. The word yesterday entered her vocabulary, though its meaning was elastic, synonymous with whatever was no longer the case." Part of Bela's trouble with yesterday is that the equivalent word in Bengali, kal, is "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." The Lowlands is a novel of both yesterday and kal. Sometimes only a well-placed word or two can prevent us from believing the future is as immutable as the past. Where we're from is incredibly important to us, but it doesn't have to dictate where we're going. You can leave the door open just a crack, in the hopes that change will come in.