Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth: A New Emotional Wisdom

New short-story collection evokes a young Alice Munro

Jhumpa Lahiri appears to be an artist of a particular "narrative": the Bengali family and its discontents as it assimilates into America. Her stories are quiet, deliberate, setting one foot down in front of the other, then exploding with a secret, an encounter, a clash. Quietly, then, they lay back down, leaving the reader astir in their unnerving calm. Lahiri's story stock, however, is rife with characters that are larger than the Bengali immigration experience, experiences larger than mere discontent. She's an artist of the family portrait, drawing upon the shades of love that color us as we crawl from childhood to old age: from ephemeral to lifetime love, from unrequited to accommodated love, from a child's love for a parent to a parent's for a child.

The eight stories in Unaccustomed Earth have in them an emotional wisdom weightier than in Lahiri's first collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and they contain a more nuanced tightness than her neo-Chekhovian first novel, The Namesake (2003), which director Mira Nair made into a film, turning Lahiri's gloom grand. In the earlier books, identity and blending cultures gave the narratives their shape; the writing was spare, elegant, knowing. Lahiri was praised for her precocity. Accolades piled up. But her new stories are better, stronger—evidence of a writer pushing herself to a deeper level. Perhaps it's personal: Lahiri has married a Guatemalan-Greek journalist (mixed marriages often appear in her stories). She has become a mother. Both her mother-in-law and father-in-law have died. Grief figures prominently in the new collection. The parent-child relationship is scrutinized more sharply.

Old-fashioned in her approach, contemporary in her subject matter, Lahiri anchors these stories in character. In the title piece (inspired by a Hawthorne quote), Ruma's solitary, brooding, and recently widowed father comes to love his little grandson working with him in the garden while he harbors a secret from his daughter about his new lover. In "Hell-Heaven," Usha's mother silences her attraction to a regular family visitor through well-planned meals and abundant courtesy, the secret of her near implosion tamped down. In "A Choice of Accommodations," Amit—fretful about the ordinary dangers that could befall his daughters—blurts out to a stranger at a wedding that his marriage "disappeared" after his children were born.

Old-fashioned in approach, contemporary in subject matter: Lahiri
Elena Seibert
Old-fashioned in approach, contemporary in subject matter: Lahiri

Although Lahiri has cited Marquez and William Trevor as influences, these stories are more akin to those of a young Alice Munro. In "Unaccustomed Earth," Ruma's grief at losing her mother becomes tangled up in whether she should invite her father to live with her, not realizing that "he did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it." And for her, the revelation, in part, will be that "even though he was still alive, there was no longer anyone to care for her." Ruma's palpable sadness is a feeling that carries through to "Only Goodness," in which Sudha weathers the realities of her brother Rahul's alcoholism as it tears up her childhood family. When Sudha's son is born, her parents have a second chance, "their tiny grandson plugging up the monstrous hole Rahul left behind in his wake." In both stories, new life brings hope to broken families, and mothers awash in tears must carry on when the baby cries. Lahiri's not an original stylist—no mysterious Hawthornian symbolism or Marquezian flights of fancy—but she captures these moments with clarity and grace, a tangible knowledge of how souls twist in the wind.

Doomy, lonely, and facing defeat, Lahiri's characters don't have much fun. The closest moment to joy is when a harried and troubled couple reconciles briefly to revel in the wife's stretch marks, "like inlaid streaks of mother-of-pearl," during a passionate embrace. It's as if the burden of worrying Indian and American culture, or man and woman, or sentence and story into union takes a psychic toll too weighty to bear laughter.

The "Hema and Kaushik" stories, a trilogy that closes the book, prove the most haunting. The characters, Lahiri has said in interviews, lived with her for a decade, and their presence feels imprinted in these pages as if by letterpress. Hema and Kaushik meet first as children, when their Indian parents, living in Cambridge, befriend one another; they meet again when they are teens and Kaushik's family has returned from Calcutta to stay with Hema's family. Finally, as fate would have it, they meet as adults in Rome, she a scholar about to enter an arranged marriage, he a war photographer who never properly grieved his mother's death from cancer, having lived "through her illness day after day."

In these three stories, Lahiri experiments with point of view. Forsaking her usual third-person narrator, she goes for the intimate whispers of first person, initially as a conversation with Kaushik that plays out in Hema's mind, then, in the second tale, as Kaushik addresses the reader. If one felt like a fortunate fly on the wall in previous stories, now the effect is to sit in between the beats of her characters' heartaches.

 
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