Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Book Review: Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lahiri)

In her collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth (Alfred A. Knopf, April 2008), Jhumpa Lahiri tells earthbound tales of ordinary Bengalis leading very ordinary (and very Western) lives as immigrants to America. Unaccustomed Earth features five short stories and one novella, "Hema and Kaushik," which, at just over 100 pages, is one third of the book.

The stories are written with clarity and insight, giving us an intimate look into the psyches of her characters. The characters themselves could be our neighbors or friends; they are people with everyday concerns, problems, and failures to communicate, which seem so familiar that they often remind me of people I know.

Though most of her characters come from India, the struggles they face in their lives could be anyone's. They occasionally wear Indian clothes, eat Indian foods, and sometimes retain Indian customs, but for the most part they seem entirely American, like they have already been absorbed by a culture with which they still occasionally feel at odds. These are normal people living normal lives.

This, for me, was the problem. I don't think I'm Jhumpa Lahiri's ideal reader. It's true that I have long had an interest in India and its cultures, but I like a good dose of mythology, magic, adventure, and the supernatural with my fiction. I'm quite sure that my failure to appreciate these stories is entirely mine.

I know very well that people sometimes fail to communicate, that family members fail to live up to each other’s expectations, and that marriages are often anything but romantic. Alienation and lack of effective communication are frequent themes throughout all the stories of Unaccustomed Earth. Though heartfelt and well-described, to me, these themes are just so banal.

I must confess, I read fiction to escape from a world of ordinary struggles, ordinary pain. It is not my wish, generally, to be immersed in commonplace hardships that might be happening in any house in any city in America, when I read. But that might be just me.

If you like stories that are windows into the everyday private lives of others, I imagine you will love Unaccustomed Earth. My mother, a professor of literature, who can certainly claim more expertise about the subject than I, loved the book and gave it a rave review over the phone to me. I wish I could share her enthusiasm. I found the book depressing, though that in itself is not a real criticism, depression being a legitimately human state.

Even I must admit that Lahiri's stories ring true on every page, her characters and situations having the vividness to evoke real life. I cannot fault her there. Her writing is thoughtful. Her characters somehow find convincing life and breath between her words on the page.

My favorite quote in the book seems to sum up what most of her stories are about:

"... of the fledgling family that had cracked open that morning, as typical and terrifying as any other."

To be fair, not all of the relationships in her stories crack open. Some of them mend, as relationships often do over time.

To give brief summaries of the stories here:

In the title story, "Unaccustomed Earth," a father visits his daughter in Seattle. She is pregnant with her second child. He is retired and makes frequent trips to Europe. His daughter believes it is her duty, now that her father is a widower, to invite him to live with her family. Both are living in places that are strange to them, yet they are also strange to each other, failing to communicate their expectations, which the other can't fulfill.

In "Hell-Heaven," an immigrant Bengali family adopts a Bengali student as an "uncle." The mother of the family falls in love with him, but eventually he marries an American woman, straining their relationship.

In "Choice of Accommodation," a couple makes a weekend getaway to a hotel, using a friend's wedding as an excuse. The story is a study in contrast between romantic hopes and the reality of marriage.

In "Only Goodness," a family deals with a son's alcoholism. His sister, who introduced him to alcohol as a teenager, worries that she is to blame.

In "Nobody's Business," a college boy has a crush on his Indian housemate, whose boyfriend is cheating on her. Her housemate finds out before she does, and wonders what to do about it.

In the novella "Hema and Kaushik," a girl and a boy meet when his family moves back to America, after having spent some years back in India, and temporarily lives with her family. She develops a crush on the older boy, and grows to love his mother, but soon finds out his mother is dying of breast cancer. Many years after his mother's death, the young man and woman meet again.

Of all the pieces in the book, I enjoyed the longest one, "Hema and Kaushik," the most. I think perhaps it was necessary for me to read more than a short vignette before I would begin to care about her characters. The story also possesses a symbolic dimension, with allusions to mythology the others lack, creating a depth of meaning not present elsewhere in the book, in my opinion.

For example, a sense of fatal foreboding arises after Hema loses a gold bangle given to her by her grandmother, which in the course of the story has come to signify her relationship with Kaushik:

"And yet she felt she had left a piece of her body behind. She had grown up hearing from her mother that losing gold was inauspicious, and as the plane began to climb, in those moments she was still aware of it moving, a dark thought passed through her, that it would crash or be blasted apart in the sky."
Lahiri is also the author of The Namesake, which was made into a movie by director Mira Nair. I found the movie similarly well done, but also slightly tedious, though I must admit I didn't read the book.

Several of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth appeared previously in The New Yorker.

Unaccustomed Earth is currently available in hardcover and audio CD from the major online booksellers, as well as bookstores. There is also a version available for the Amazon Kindle.



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