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Originally published Sunday, September 29, 2013 at 4:05 AM

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Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Lowland’: brothers, divided

Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, “The Lowland,” tells the story of two brothers, both from India, whose lives radically diverge as the turmoil of the 20th century unfolds. Lahiri will appear Oct. 10 at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Jhumpa Lahiri

The author of “The Lowland” will appear at 7 p.m. Oct. 10 at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Sponsored by Seattle Public Library; tickets are free on a first-come first served basis (206-386-4636 or spl.org).

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‘The Lowland’

by Jhumpa Lahiri

Knopf, 340 pp., $27.95

“The Namesake,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, made for good reading and a decent movie, built around the divided loyalties that plague a first-generation immigrant. Her second, “The Lowland,” roams around the globe but only peripherally touches on the culture shock that comes with trading one country for another.

Rather, this new novel is a more ambitious work, tracing a family caught in the turbulent history of post-independence India. Its title — a reference to the flood plain where the story begins — stands as a symbol of a changing country.

As the story opens, two innocent boys play alongside the swampy ground near their home in 1950s Calcutta. By book’s end, the swamp has vanished, absorbed in the development of a modern nation. Time and memory move on.

The two boys are Subhash and Udayan Mitra, brothers born 15 months apart after World War II. Their parents belong to India’s insecure middle class. Although close as any can be, the two brothers are mirror opposites: Subhash, the older, is cautious and self-doubting; Udayan is quick and charismatic, “blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colors.”

Not surprisingly, it is Udayan who’s attracted to radical causes as the boys grow into men. When Subhash leaves for Rhode Island to pursue graduate studies in oceanography, his younger brother remains behind, breaking rules right and left. First he brings home a bride that his parents haven’t approved. Then he takes part in an anti-government plot, with disastrous results.

The ripple effect of Udayan’s choices will be felt into the next generation and the generation after that.

In the meantime, the dutiful Subhash returns home to take charge of the mess left behind. He returns to America with his brother’s baggage, in both literal and emotional terms.

This narrative gives Lahiri the chance to pursue the answers to elusive questions. What is the formula that holds family members together? Why do the events of the past inject themselves so strongly, and so destructively, into the present? “The Lowland” asks us to look at how the ties that bind all families become corrupted by trauma and tragedy.

Lahiri tells her tale in waves, moving forward and back, the rhythms set by both willful forgetting (“time she’d crushed between her fingertips”) and inevitability (“With children the clock is reset. We forget what came before.”). She switches point of view between the characters. Appropriately, no spot on the landscape remains fixed.

Lahiri, who was born in England of Indian background, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for her first book, a short-story collection titled “Interpreter of Maladies.” Her artful writing combines short, simple sentences with lyrical turns of phrase. She sorts through her characters’ lives with uncommon delicacy.

And yet, “The Lowland” has its limitations. A revelation at the end falls short of fully explaining the behavior of the woman both brothers love. When the novel lags, it’s not because it’s too long. Rather, it’s because we’ve skimmed across the surface of so many lives without getting fully invested in what’s happening to them.

A reasonable conclusion is that, for all her talents, Jhumpa Lahiri works best in the tighter format of the short story. No insult intended here: Some of our best contemporary writers — Alice Munro and William Trevor, to name two — also have found their métier in the short story.

Ellen Emry Heltzel lives and writes in Portland, OR.

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