Unaccustomed Earth — Review by Chris

Jhumpa Lahiri knows how to communicate. She's not just — as if one can be "just" — a short story writer or a novelist. She is a communicator.

Take her latest: Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories. In it, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author shares with us the life and inner workings of Bengali men and women and the people around them. Each character is carefully drawn and, to the reader, is a distinct individual. Lahiri has an affection for each of them, allows us into their lives with such intimacy I am overwhelmed and grateful time and again. Her language is precise and generous, and by no means unfair nor ambiguous. Her characters have their faults and foibles as well as their strengths and charms, deep and clear. She does not criticize them, but lets their stories make or break their cases.

In earlier books, Lahiri's characters precariously straddled the life between Bengali and American culture — bound to one but striving for the other. However, in this book, the characters have come to terms with this dichotomy, accepting the implied hyphen that keeps them in both camps with simultaneous magnetism. It isn't easier for these people, but the struggle has changed: from trying to find a place in the world to living within the boundaries of their territory.

The book is divided into two sections, the second of which involves the intertwined lives of Hema and Kaushik. I read the stories in order, but you needn't do that with the first section. The second section, however, you must read in order. All stories in this collection are varied and rich in detail.

Ruma is torn between life with her American husband and her expectations as a Bengali daughter. Her mother died unexpectedly and her father now travels the world by himself. Ruma thinks her father lonesome and abandoned. Her father, however, feels nothing of the sort. The story tells both Ruma's and her father's perspective of the same situation. As a daughter myself, it was lovely to see how both father and daughter held on to their strong — and wrong — expectations.

Sudha gave her baby brother Rahul his first beer when she was in college, helped him buy his stash and hide it when she would come home during school breaks — then watched, with a growing understanding and horror, as he continued down the slippery slope of alcoholism.

Sang has a boyfriend and Anglo roommates. She also has an unending line of potential husbands (Bengali, of course). She is a good catch: well-educated, a good daughter, of good moral character. She, however, has a boyfriend: Freddy/Farouk, who has, for the three years they have been together, spoken of the future in broad terms. However, things change when her male roommate, Paul, answers the phone one lonely evening.

Many vignettes stopped my heart as I read them. One in particular was about Kaushik, who met his new stepsisters and their mother one college break. His own mother had been dead for years, but he didn't discover the depth of his loss until bleak winter night — and his fury against two young children was so hot and violent it scared me to read it.

Another was the slow terrible realization of Neel's plight one evening. Could his uncle be as reliable as he appeared all week, while under the watchful eye of his suspicious sister and unaware brother-in-law? The gnawing doubt culminated in a terrible brief scene with details and images that brought tears to my eyes — it still gives me chills when I think about it, the subtlety, the devil in the details. Lahiri makes the tragedy and the joy immediate and deliberate.

Do yourself a favor: go out and pick up all three of Lahiri's works (including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies and her sole published novel to date, The Namesake). Then pace yourself if you can. Once I finished a story or chapter, I found myself unable to resist reading the first few lines of the next part — which sucked me in for another indeterminate period of time. I never experienced Author Fatigue from Lahiri; unlike other authors, I did not feel a rut in style, rhythm or characters. If you picked them up at the library, which I always recommend, you will then want them for your permanent collection. Then you will wait hungrily for her next work.

I enjoyed this collection immensely and highly recommend it. Please let me know when you read her work. You will be glad you did.

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