Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Synopsis (from jacket cover): From the internationally best-selling, Pulitzer Prize–winning author, a superbly crafted new work of fiction: eight stories—longer and more emotionally complex than any she has yet written—that take us from Cambridge and Seattle to India and Thailand as they enter the lives of sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, friends and lovers.
Review: This is my first attempt at following John Updike’s rules for reviewing – feel free to let me know if I succeed!
I had very high hopes for Lahiri’s second collection — Interpreter of Maladies helped me fall back in love with short stories — and her sophomore effort (or junior, I guess, since we should include The Namesake, her novel) did not disappoint in the least.
Earth was the first work I bought for my Kindle and the new format did not obstruct my enjoyment of her prose in the least. The first half of the collection was a series of unrelated stories — connected by Lahiri’s usual subject matter of second-generation Indian-Americans navigating the complexities of identity, familial loyalty and relationships.
The second half of the collection included stories with shared characters. I enjoyed this since Lahiri is so adept at creating characters I love, and I was thrilled to get more than one story focused on them — especially since each story was told from a different character’s perspective. However, I actually didn’t enjoy these characters quite as much as the ones in the unrelated stories — although I’m not sure why.
Unaccustomed Earth begins with an epigraph from Hawthorne’s Custom House — that quite long, seemingly unrelated introduction to The Scarlet Letter that I imagine most students chose not to read in American Literature. However, as a first impression of Unaccustomed Earth, the epigraph worked beautifully and served as the inspiration for the title:
Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.
Despite Hawthorne’s assertion, we feel the tension and pull of both lands in Lahiri’s characters — a sense of rootlessness, even though most characters have the benefit of double-rootedness, both in their new homes in America and in their ancestral homes of India.
Lahiri has a knack of saturating every day objects with great symbolic meaning, and then allowing us to contemplate our awareness of this. For example, the postcards that never quite allow a sense of the sender:
Her father wrote succinct, impersonal accounts of the things he had seen or done… Occasionally there was a sentence about the weather. But there was never a sense of her father’s presence in those places.
Or the deflated balloon after a wayward sibling has disappointed yet again:
…and she saw that the balloon tied to the back of Neel’s high chair was no longer suspended on its ribbon. It had sagged to the floor, a shrunken thing incapable of bursting. She clipped the ribbon with scissors and stuffed the whole thing into the garbage, surprised at how easily it fit, thinking of the husband who no longer trusted her, of the son whose cry now interrupted her, of the fledgling family that had cracked open that morning, as typical and terrifying as any other.
What Lahiri does so well is embrace the common, universal challenges of mortality — of family — of relationships. Her focus on Indian-Americans only serves to provide a concrete anchor or context for those burdens and celebrations we all share.
Anyone else read this yet?