Bengalis Assimilate in 'Unaccustomed Earth'
It's early to be proclaiming a best book of the year, but Jhumpa Lahiri's gorgeous new collection of eight stories, "Unaccustomed Earth," will be hard to top. The book (and opening story) takes its title from a lovely quote by Nathaniel Hawthorne about the salubrious effects of sending "roots into unaccustomed earth" rather than replanting succeeding generations "in the same worn-out soil."
Although Lahiri continues to plow the fertile ground she first sowed in her Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection, "Interpreter of Maladies" (2000) - Bengali immigrants and the culture gap that grows between them and their American-raised offspring - her characters repot themselves so frequently and her insights run so deep that there's little risk of exhausting this theme.
In "Unaccustomed Earth," the first-generation children who chafed under their parents' old-fashioned customs and vowed to marry for love are now adults, often wedded to or involved with non-Bengalis. They learn that contentment is more elusive than they thought. To their surprise, several find themselves drawn back to the security of their parents' traditional arrangements.
That's the common thread. What's uncommon is Lahiri's sensitivity as she tracks these characters' loves and losses with exquisite assurance. Several stories explore the pressures of family responsibilities - whether to a widowed father or a wayward younger brother - or the grief of losing a loved one. All unfold with a quiet accrual of details and nuanced observations that makes you regret having to leave its absorbing world when you finish. Yet each story is exactly the right length. Not only do these tales showcase Lahiri's gift for distilling lives into 25 to 50 pages, they also show why short stories are her form: She is a master of endings. Novels, such as Lahiri's "The Namesake," allow for expanded, continuous narration, but story collections provide more opportunities for the full stop that hits you squarely and continues to reverberate.
The three linked stories that make up the second part of "Unaccustomed Earth" offer a happy compromise between the long and short forms, and some of Lahiri's best writing. "Hema and Kaushik" features two only children initially thrown together by their mothers' friendship. In "Once in a Lifetime," Hema, addressing an absent Kaushik, recalls the first winter of Kaushik's discontent: the month in 1981 when he and his parents lived with her family upon return to Massachusetts after seven years back in India. Hema, 13, developed a schoolgirl crush on Kaushik, who at 16 was indifferent and sulky. Kaushik's parents, too, seemed so changed and unfriendly that Hema's parents complained privately that "we'd unwittingly opened our home to strangers." When Kaushik exposes the root of their transformation - his mother's terminal cancer - Hema bursts into tears, but he remains stony, "neither of us a comfort to the other."
In "Year's End," Kaushik picks up his story five years later. He's a junior at Swarthmore, and his mother has been dead three years. He describes his first Christmas at home after his father marries a much younger, more traditional widow with two young daughters. Lahiri adroitly captures his simmering rage and lingering grief, infusing every line with his bleak mood. When he flees to Maine, for example, the desolate sky, like him, is colorless, "taut and unforgiving," while the water, "nearly black at times," is lethally frigid, "its spray violent enough to break me apart."
In the final story of the trio (and the book), "Going Ashore," the two characters' paths cross briefly in Rome as adults. Hema has become an academic and Kaushik a photojournalist constantly on the go, avoiding both America and India. In Lahiri's hands, their trajectories seem fated. Her stunning conclusion, carefully planted in the earlier tales, evokes Shirley Hazzard's "The Transit of Venus." One of Lahiri's recurrent themes is the abiding hold of the past on the present, and the dead on the living. Kaushik's extreme alienation, where "no one had the ability to reach" him, allows him "to taste that tremendous power my mother possessed forever."
In the title story, Ruma, pregnant with her second child and newly relocated from Brooklyn to Seattle, struggles with relentless sadness over her mother's sudden death, even as she gradually recognizes her father's new lease on life. She feels "closer to her mother in death than she had in life, an intimacy born simply of thinking of her so often, of missing her." Yet "the distance between them was now infinite, unyielding."
These stories are often doleful and elegiac, but "Unaccustomed Earth" is cause for celebration: It showcases a considerable talent in full bloom.
This review first appeared in The San-Francisco Chronicle.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008