Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer prize-winning British-American novelist of Bengali (Indian) descent whom I discovered one day when, while wandering through Borders, I picked up The Namesake and started reading the first paragraph. I was immediately hooked and had to buy it. I think it took me a day at the most to finish it, and it has since been made into a movie (that I haven’t seen).
Lahiri writes books few and far between. While The Namesake was written in 2004, Unaccustomed Earth came out last year and languished a bit on my TBR pile before I finally picked it up—and like her other books, I read it straight without putting it down. I’m not fond of reading books without happy endings, and Lahiri is probably one of the few exceptions. It’s not that the endings are depressing, it is just that they are more bittersweet, more real.
Most of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth have human relationships at their core. Lahiri does an excellent job of making the characters’ underlying emotions flow through the story. Universal themes of community, family, togetherness, and love pull you in, and you feel a sense of connection with the characters. They become so sympathetically relateable that the consequences of their actions almost feel as though they are unravelling before you. Some of the stories have migrant related themes, and as a migrant myself, I found a lot of the themes and the conflicts familiar. Again, you don’t have to be from a similar culture to be able to relate to this. I think that the themes she touches on are universal.
The theme of Unaccustomed Earth is “following new lives forged in the wake of loss”. The collection of stories includes:
Unaccustomed Earth — This story follows a father and daughter reconnecting after her mother’s unexpected death. Unsure whether she should follow tradition and invite her father to live with them, into her very American life, she is unaware that her father has created his own life, one he is quite content with.
Hell-Heaven — In this story, we follow the integration of Pranaub, a new migrant, into his neighbour’s family and how this affects all of them.
A Choice of Accommodations — A story of a couple attempting to reconnect as they attend an acquaintance’s wedding.
Only Goodness — This story follows a sister and brother and his descent into alcoholism with potentially devastating consequences for their family.
Nobody’s Business — A new roommate moves into an old flat, she has a boyfriend, but is he a dick? Follow the observations of her roommates as her relationship with them, and her boyfriend, change with time.
Hema and Kaushik: three interlinked stories — This was my favourite story in the book. It’s the story of two people who met as children when they lived in the same house, what happened in their lives, and then what happens when they meet, 30 years later, as adults in Rome.
Yay or Nay?
While I liked Unaccustomed Earth, if you haven’t read Lahiri’s work before, The Namesake or Interpreter of Maladies (a shorter and not as heavy themed collection of short stories) would be a better starting point. If you have read her before than you will find that this has the same lyrical prose that will draw you into her style of writing and keep you caught up in the lives of the characters within. It’s not entirely light reading—the characters are all dealing with some form of loss, and that always in some way manages to touch you, even if you are only reading about it. This is not a book to go to when you need to feel happy, but if you are looking for something to make you feel, to explore the fine threads within human relationships, then this may be it.
The paperback edition of this book comes out this month in the US and in June in the UK.