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April 8, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

When I learned to write short stories by reading other short stories when I was younger, the general sense I got from my reading was that stories had to be strange. For how else but through quirks could you fit whole narratives into pages? Construction otherwise seemed impossible, which was why the earliest characters would always wake up and it was just a dream, or later there would be corpses in bed, characters who were soulless automatons, graveyard shifts, girls in attics, and/or sex with strangers in impossible places. Real life didn’t seem to happen here.

I figured that form dictated content, and I don’t have to tell you that my imitative efforts were terrible. I didn’t understand how stories could be organic instead, growing to determine their appropriate container. That there could be stories like those from Jhumpa Lahiri’s new collection Unaccustomed Earth, which fit so comfortable in their containers they didn’t even need to proclaim themselves. Lahiri’s are stories for people who don’t even realize that they like short stories yet. Not that they don’t take full advantage of the form, but rather she writes with such choice details, clear focuses, sensible narratives and cadences that the reader comes away ultimately satisfied. Like reading a novel, but then it’s not a novel, and perhaps you might like stories after all.

Which is to say that as stories, these aren’t especially challenging, seemingly without blocks and wobbles, straightforwardly put. But of course they’re not simple either, their richness so incredibly subtle, and subtlety is definitely Lahiri’s forte. As well as her endings, which might be the ultimate reason her stories are so satisfying (and I wish I could take credit for that revelation, but actually I read it in this review, where Lahiri is called “a master of endings”). Which also is not to say that Lahiri’s stories are easy, because they’re not– the ending of her final story “Going Ashore” packs such a wallop, you’ll be closing the book a bit stunned; the climax of “Only Goodness” is so devastating, you’ve got to read it twice to make sure you’ve got it right; dynamics between certain characters (a young man and his new stepsisters, the awkward student infatuated with his roommate, a tired husband and wife) absolutely horrifying in their details.

The Unaccustomed Earth is an extension of Lahiri’s previous work in a way that is logical, if not quite predictable. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Interpreter of Maladies and her novel The Namesake considered Bengali immigrants and their early experiences in America. The characters’ focus was always their children, and here lies the extension as Lahiri makes these children the focus of her newest collection. Children whose parents had moved across the world and therefore have always been accustomed to rootlessness, coming into adulthood knowing no other way. Belonging everywhere, but also nowhere, disconnected by culture and geography from all that went before them.

I will say that I did not love Unaccustomed Earth as much as I did Interpreter of Maladies, but that is perhaps too high an expectation to put on any book. But I don’t mean that this is an inferior collection. Rather that it was an inherent optimism, the hope underlining the first collection that made me fall in love with its stories. Arrival in America, with all its hardships, was still its own happy ending, resolution. Whereas Unaccustomed Earth shows that few stories ever tie up so easily– loss is the rule here, whether it be through death, trouble, or relationships that never were for the gaps that lie between us. Many families in these stories move back to India eventually, for various reasons, the rootlessness only exacerbated then.

But though my heart was not warmed, it was certainly moved, this collection as stunning as one might expect. Lahiri is only getting better, still making stories out of the realist stuff of life, and a life so true that her forms are ultimately secondary.

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