Jhumpa Lahiri is a goddess. Her writing is just as exquisite as it was in The Interpreter of Maladies, and she still possess that unique ability to be both searing and tender to her characters.
In Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri weaves eight short stories (sometimes approaching novella-length) about the Indian immigrant experience in America. We watch young Indian-American men and women struggle to fit in with their schoolmates, to balance the pressures exerted upon them by familial duty and their own desires, and to determine what “happiness” actually looks like for themselves. But many of the stories transcend genre, to my mind; they can be read as coming-of-age stories, as pure literary fiction, a few as creative non-fiction. And we are always carried along by the soothing, sensitive, and authentic prose that Lahiri is so deft at creating.
As always, it’s difficult for me to review a short story collection, but Lahiri’s products are remarkably even and I don’t think that there were any particularly weak chapters.
“Unaccustomed Earth,” the story that gives the collection its title, is a thoughtful look at what it means to lose someone and what it means to move on; I thought the alternate push-and-pull of the relationship between new mother Ruma and her widowed father was extremely authentic. It felt honest. “Only Goodness” was one of the more painful stories, in which an older sister grapples with feelings of guilt and loyalty towards her alcoholic younger brother. (Anyone who has felt that they have tried and failed to protect a loved one will find their words and thoughts mirrored on those pages.) The last short story of the collection, “Hema and Kaushik,” told in several POV-shifting parts, is about the decades-long relationship between the children of two Bengali families and ends with a punch to the gut. I’ll leave it at that.
My only (slight) concern about the book is that it seems to retread a path that Lahiri is in danger of wearing smooth…the experiences of a certain type of Indian immigrant. Some of the stories seemed to echo one another to the point that it was sometimes difficult to keep them apart: well-educated Indian family immigrates to the east coast of the United States; child has growing pains but eventually attends prestigious school and lands prestigious job and marries a non-Indian. I still think she is an incredible writer, and would read her take on an Ikea instructional booklet, but I would love to see her substantial talents turned toward tales of immigrants that exist beyond her comfort zone.
Still, the power and craft of Unaccustomed Earth is undeniable, almost comforting. Recommended for fans of Lahiri, for fans of excellent short stories, and for those looking for a genuine look at the Indian-American experience.
Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “There were times Ruma felt closer to her mother in death than she had in life, an intimacy born simply of thinking of her so often, of missing her. But she knew that this was an illusion, a mirage, and that the distance between them was now infinite, unyielding.”