We Need to Talk about Bela
Jhumpa Lahiri is forever linked with Junot Diaz in my mind, because both are young-ish Pulitzer winners, and both are interested in what it means to have traveled to America in the latter half of the 20th century. Diaz writes of a young Dominican-American man who hides his mother’s “government cheese” before a prospective girlfriend comes over. His characters remember the legacy of Rafael Trujillo, though they no longer live in the Dominican Republic.
Likewise, Lahiri writes about cultural transplants. Indian-American characters are described in their kitchens, whipping up curries and dhaal. Female scalps are adorned with vermilion powder. One Indian child, on a visit to the States, has the otherworldly experience of walking into a Dunkin Donuts for the first time. The child sees a coconut donut, which looks as if it has been sprinkled with snow.
Some other random facts about Lahiri: She lived in Boston, racking up graduate degrees, throughout her 20s. It was only semi-recently that she began to experiment with fiction. For a while, she lived in my neighborhood, Brooklyn’s Fort Greene, though I never spotted her. She now resides in Rome. And the title of her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, seems to be Lahiri’s own job description. She invents people with emotional and spiritual sicknesses, and she explains them to us.
So who is sick in Lahiri’s new novel, The Lowland, and why?
The answers are: (1) a young man named Subhash, and (2) for a variety of reasons. He is sick because his brother, Udayan, has been gunned down by the police in the presence of his parents. (Udayan belonged to a Communist group, the Naxalites, who sometimes used murder to get what they wanted.) Also, Subhash is sick because he now lives alone in Rhode Island, a world away from his family. Lastly, he is sick because he is heartbroken; his pseudo-girlfriend, an older American woman, has drifted away.
Enter Gauri, Subhash’s sister-in-law. Now that her husband, Udayan, is dead, Gauri is bereft. She lives with her mother-in-law, who is openly rude to her. She is carrying her dead husband’s child; she feels as if her life is over before it has begun.
On a trip back home to India, Subhash finds himself drawn to Gauri. Perhaps he can solve some of his family’s problems, along with some of his own. He will marry Gauri and raise Gauri’s child as his own. His niece will not experience life without a father. He will have an intelligent wife, someone to keep him company in the far-off land of Rhode Island.
At first, Gauri and Subhash live chastely. Eventually, though, they begin to sleep together. Something is not quite right. Gauri has mixed feelings about her husband, and she cannot take a sincere interest in her own daughter, Bela. (Maternal ambivalence is a bold choice of subject for Lahiri. The only other contemporary American literary novel about a mother who doesn’t really like her own kid—at least, the only one that leaps to my mind—is Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin.)
Gauri finds herself spending less and less time with Bela. Gauri locks herself in an office with many books of German philosophy, and begins to work on a dissertation. Meanwhile, like any little kid, Bela is needy. Can’t Gauri tear herself away?
She begins to experiment. She starts leaving Bela alone in the house for five, ten minutes, here and there. Ah, freedom! Gauri doesn’t really have anywhere to go; she just enjoys escaping the burdens of motherhood now and then.
Alas, tragedy strikes. Subhash comes home early one day and discovers what his wife has been up to. When she returns home, he tells her that she is an unfit mother.
Life goes on. Gauri tries to ignore her husband’s coldness. One day, Bela doesn’t want to go to school because a pile of dead earthworms has materialized on the sidewalk. Gauri knows that other mothers would comfort their children; other mothers would even let their children stay home for a day. Not Gauri. Gauri recalls seeing the love of her life shot and killed by policemen. Gauri is going to teach her daughter a lesson; she will drag Bela through the dead earthworms and off to school.
This tale of rough parenting reaches a ludicrous climax. Subhash goes off to India to visit his aging mother, with Bela in tow. Gauri seizes an opportunity. She packs up and accepts a philosophy position on the West Coast. She plans not to return to Rhode Island. She plans to have no more contact with her husband and her daughter, her flesh and blood.
The rest of the novel concerns the fall-out from this choice. Subhash dutifully raises Bela, who becomes a hard-core environmentalist. Gauri turns into a respected scholar, and secretly fucks a young female advisee. And then there is a somewhat improbable reunion/happy ending.
Lahiri has some real strengths. The narrative skips along like a briskly-paced movie. The sentences are never maudlin and never awkward. The natural world makes many memorable appearances: that mound of dead worms, the strange climatic similarities between India’s Tollygunge and Rhode Island, the almost-magical woodsy area that surrounds Subhash and Udayan in childhood.
Still, the novel doesn’t work. I had felt so excited when I first picked it up; praise from Europe had been extravagant, and Lahiri had been announced as a contender for a Booker Prize. So why was I finding the act of reading to be such a chore?
I decided that the reason is Gauri. The characterization just doesn’t make sense. I can’t think of a mother who severs all ties with her child—unless that mother is severely disturbed. Gauri seems too functional for the choice that Lahiri ascribes to her. Remember that even the mother in We Need to Talk about Kevin maintains ties with her son—even when that son becomes a murderous psychopath.
If you want a persuasive family drama, turn to the works of Maile Meloy. And please write in protest to the folks in charge of the National Book Award, who inexplicably nominated The Lowland over James Salter’s excellent All That Is. And pray that the award goes to George Saunders’s Tenth of December, which deserves it over Lahiri’s promising, unsatisfying novel.