Thursday, July 16, 2009

Jhumpa Lahiri: Unaccustomed Earth

Having read Interpreter of Maladies last year, I've been determined to read Jhumpa Lahiri's second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, for an unbearably long time. (Moonrat's review of the book, I would add, only increased my eagerness to get a copy and dig in.) Luckily I found a chance this week to read Unaccustomed Earth cover to cover, and I found Lahiri's latest work to be every bit as satisfying as Interpreter of Maladies, even more so.

Unaccustomed Earth finds Lahiri in familiar thematic territory: the lives of Bengali immigrants who seek to find a balance between the cultures of their current and former homeland, the languages they speak, and the values imparted to their children. But the stories here are longer, more complex, and even more nuanced than those in the author's previous short story collection. There's a mixture of emotions, settings, and an array of characters that gives each story its own personality and flavor in Unaccustomed Earth. Through one of the book's recurring themes, intercultural relationships, Lahiri provides an insightful eye into what makes cultures unique but also universal. The author dives into the richness of Indian culture with her details of traditions, attire, and lexicon from the Bengali language. The proof of the stories' universal quality is the fact that almost any reader can find an aspect he/she can relate to in the scenarios presented in these stories: the loss of a parent early in life; the sacrifices we make for professional advancement; jealousy and distrust in a relationship; and the list continues endlessly.

In Lahiri we have a writer who constructs her stories in meticulous and masterful fashion. She writes in delightfully accessible prose, beckoning the reader to begin a story and not leave until it's finished. Her passages flow gracefully, meshing plot, dialogue, and details of her characters' lives past and present. Worthy of mention is Lahiri's ability to take the reader straight into her characters' world, physically and otherwise. I found myself entrenched in the drama and circumstances surrounding the individuals who fill this book--the young woman disappointed by her younger brother, the man who makes a fool of himself in front of his wife and old acquaintances, the daughter who doesn't know what to make of her father's visit.

I understand the weariness of those who find repetitive Lahiri's tackling the same subject matter in book after book. The time may come when Lahiri moves onto new ground thematically, but until then I say we might as well enjoy the splendid storytelling that emerges from what she feels she knows best.


moonrat said...

yay!! i'm so glad you liked it, too!!

seriously, it's amazing to me that she writes about ONE subject, and one so presumably unrelateable to someone like me, and yet she touched me SO personally with this collection. and i've heard a lot of other people say the same.

bph said...

I honestly couldn't imagine not liking this one after reading Interpreter of Maladies and watching the film adaptation of The Namesake, and loving both. Speaking of The Namesake, Part 2 of this collection (the three intertwined stories) reminded me very much of what happens in a certain section of that novel (though admittedly I have only seen it in the film and haven't read it).

I think the universality of her stories contributes tremendously to her appeal as a writer. I literally saw myself in certain aspects and characters here, even though I am not Indian and know very little about the culture. I can't say too many books I read have this effect on me.

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Jane Steen said...

Sounds interesting, and it's wonderful to find a short story writer - why do agents always say that short stories don't sell? To me they seem perfectly suited to our attention span. Obviously an author to watch.