Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

By Ekta R. Garg

August 11, 2010

Rated: Bookmark it!

Jhumpa Lahiri accomplished an incredible feat with her first book, Interpreter of Maladies: She won the Pulitzer Prize.  This feat is incredible because Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories (not a novel) and also because it was Lahiri’s first book.  It astounded readers with its profundity; Lahiri’s ability to analyze the human nature is at once intuitive and thoughtful.  She expanded her unique narrative style in her novel, The Namesake, and readers got to enjoy it again in her latest book, Unaccustomed Earth.

Published in 2008 this latest Lahiri tome takes readers back to the genre that made them take notice of Lahiri the first time around: short stories.  Unaccustomed Earth includes eight stories; the first five are stand-alone tales, and the last three function in continuation with one another.  Once again Lahiri tackles the subject of Bengali immigrants and their experiences, their trials, their failures, and their joys as they try to make sense of who they are in this country that is and also isn’t their own.

Lahiri has an interesting story-telling style that is comprised of a disproportionate amount of narrative to dialogue.  She spends her time telling her readers what the characters are doing and thinking and feeling, relieving her characters of the majority of that responsibility.  In Lahiri’s case, however, she has her craft down to such an art that we look forward to the narrative, to the long paragraphs and her authoritative disclosure of her characters’ state of mind.  Every word is measured and weighed, included only because it’s absolutely necessary.  And yet, despite this sense of being careful, there is a richness to Lahiri’s work that makes one think of enjoying a really good meal at an expensive restaurant that is worth every penny.

Of the first five stories in Unaccustomed Earth, the most striking is “Only Goodness” about a sister-brother pair who deal with the issue of alcoholism in a heartbreaking way.  Lahiri writes intimately about the addiction, and the final pages of the story make the reader shake his or her head in disbelief all the while wanting to know what might happen next.  As is the nature of the genre, however, we don’t get to know any more about the characters than what Lahiri chooses to reveal.  And like the hallmark of any good book, we are left wanting to know more.

The section entitled “Hema and Kaushik” includes the trio of stories at the end of the book, going into the details of the title characters and their experiences in growing up as second-generation Bengalis and first-generation Americans.  Their lives converge at one point, deviate from each other, and then intersect once again.  Their end is happy and then again isn’t; they find pieces of themselves in one another in that all-encompassing experience of being the children of immigrants.  Yet despite that common experience, they suffer from the same shortcomings that all humans do and those shortcomings prevent them from finding the happiness for which they’d both hoped.

As a member of this group, I find a sort of kinship with Lahiri’s stories.  Although my family isn’t Bengali (we’re Punjabi,) I can still understand from the inside out what Lahiri’s characters are thinking and feeling.  I’ve heard from my own parents stories somewhat similar to what Lahiri’s first-generation characters undergo, and I can certainly empathize with her second-generation characters.  I’ve often felt or thought many of the same things they have.  Because of my own cultural heritage I don’t have an outsider’s view of Lahiri’s works (and because of my kinship with them I’m partial to anything she writes,) but I have no doubt that to a certain extent anyone could find elements of their own lives in these stories.  In tackling the immigrant experience, Lahiri has managed to spotlight the human experience.  For that very reason—and also to marvel at the beauty of her prose—Unaccustomed Earth is a must read for anyone.

***

What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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