Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

May 10, 2008 at 6:29 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

In Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories, Jhumpa Lahiri turns a laser-like eye on the experience of Indian expatriates. Back and forth they go, these characters, from India to America and back again (with occasional stopovers in London, the author’s birthplace). If they are not traveling in actuality, then their restless spirits are traveling instead, searching constantly for a way to accommodate the sundered parts of their existence.

In the title story, Ruma is twice exiled, having moved from New York to Seattle. Adam, her American husband, works for a hedge fund and travels frequently. Mother of little Akash and once again pregnant, Ruma is lonely and isolated in her new home. She has mixed feelings about an upcoming visit from her widowed father. “Ruma feared that her father would become a responsibility, an added demand, continuously present in a way she was no longer used to.” But her father’s week long sojourn becomes a quiet revelation.

I can’t resist observing, with regard to “Unaccustomed Earth,” that the portrayal of Akash is one of the least sentimental depictions of a fictional child that I have ever come across. All right: to put it bluntly, he’s a nearly insufferable brat! At least, that’s how he struck me, at first.

In “A Choice of Accommodations,” Amit and his wife Megan, a physician, have traveled to the Berkshires to attend the wedding of Amit’s old school friend, Pam Borden. They have left their daughters with Megan’s parents so they can have a romantic getaway, but instead, the trip exposes fissures in their relationship.

Five stories comprise the first part of this collection. Each is like a small novel, filled with discreet pleasures that are inevitably overshadowed by anguish, guilt, and sorrow. Problems that commonly face all families are magnified and complicated by cultural ambivalence.

The second part of Unaccustomed Earth consists of three interlinked stories. Each concerns Hema and Kaushik, a woman and a man who are brought together by destiny more than once. The pain of an irreconcilable loss hovers over these tales. At one point, Kaushik flees his family, working his solitary way up the coast of Maine in the middle of winter:

“I had never traveled alone before and I discovered that I liked it. No one in the world knew where I was, no one had the ability to reach me. It was like being dead, my escape allowing me to taste that tremendous power my mother possessed forever.

I can’t say enough about Lahiri’s gorgeous, gorgeous writing. This book helped me to understand why I pick up, and then just as quickly put down, so much contemporary fiction. IMHO, it can’t hold a candle to this. With this book, Lahiri has raised the bar very, very high.

(I just have to throw this in at this point: one of the ways in which I judge writers of fiction is how well they handle writing about sex. There’s a scene in one of these stories that totally erased my doubts on that score – it was a “Wow!” And now, I’m going to monitor the library’s reserve list on this title…)

In 2000, Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her first book, Interpeter of Maladies. She followed this story collection with the novel, The Namesake. I recommend both highly, though for me, the former has a slight edge. Lahiri is a master of the short form narrative. My only question about her at this point is whether, in her future work, she will be moving outside the sphere of the Indian-American experience, which clearly constitutes her comfort zone. On the other hand, it won’t bother me if she doesn’t. She has made that world so real, so vivid – and so universal.

And now, I give you Jhumpa Lahiri:

My husband just walked by the computer and exclaimed, “What a jaw-dropper!” I figure if she gets worn out from all that writing, she can make movies instead! (In fact, she appears in the film version of The Namesake, which i have not yet seen.)


21 Comments

  1. Over Rated said,

    I agree. The way Jhumpa writes has restored my faith in Contemporary fiction!! And she’s easy on the eye too!!

  2. The New York Times weighs in on the Best Books of 2008 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Blogger?  Four. Yep – four out of a hundred! They are: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri,  When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson, and Nothing To Be Frightened Of […]

  3. “Personal best” for 2008: Fiction, with a (brief, I promise!) sentimental digression « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri rode to prominence on the recent wave of astonishingly gifted writers with ethnic ties to the Indian subcontinent: Manil Suri, Amitav Ghosh, Monica Ali, and Rohinton Mistry, to name a few. Her first published work, the marvelous story collection Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. Next came The Namesake, which I liked, but not quite as much as Interpreter. Then this year: Unaccustomed Earth, another short story collection, which may be her best work to date. […]

  4. Farah Osman Nurse said,

    I’m not sure what you mean by Lahiri’s attainment of prominence and the other excellent authors that you’ve listed above. If you mean that her work would not have received attention without their noteworthy work, then I quite disagree. I think that the fact that so many writer’s who share a South Asian ethnicity are now well published is a product or result of decolonization.

    Both Monica Ali & Lahiri are of the same peer group in terms of age and Lahiri’s work in particular reflects her station in life in terms of experience – and does it with agility and depth. Reading Interpreter and Unaccustomed… one can see how life’s experiences have shaped and informed Lahiri as a writer and a participant in the world. This last collection of stories is magnificient. I eagerly await her next piece of writing.

  5. Roberta Rood said,

    Many pardons if I expressed myself poorly. Unaccustomed Earth was brilliant, quite without regard for anyone else’s writing. “Magnificent” is exactly the right word to describe the literary achievements of Jhumpa Lahiri.

  6. Mahbub Morshed Alam said,

    I did not read any book of Jhumpa Lahiri but today 21 Dec 2008 watche Film The Namesake made by Mira Nair. A very good film and a good story, which I understood. How to live alone, I practised and I can. I lived three years abroad (UK) alone without any touch of my Bangla culture. I know how to live alone. Namesake described the same story which I could have written as I feel the same. I can consume the world culture but cannt forget my root.

    Salute to Jhumpa Lahiri. Would be happy, if I am communicated by her.

    Engr. Mahbub Morshed Alam
    Bangladesh
    22 Dec 2008

    • Roberta Rood said,

      I watched The Namesake last night, and I can see why you would relate to it. I am moved by your post, which is an exceptionally honest expression of feeling. I have never had the experience of having to make my way in a strange land or culture, but grandparents did. They fled Russia one hundred years ago, with barely the clothes on their backs, no English, and very little money. Because of their courage, I have a good life today here in the U.S. I always strive to be a good person, myself, though, as homage to them.

      • Engr. Mahbub Morshed Alam said,

        Hi Roberta Rood,

        Thanks for your reply and also many thanks to be respectful to your grand parents who left Russia one hundred years ago for US. Your realised your grandparents and respects but in The NAMESAKE’s Gogol could not do that. So, salute to you also.
        Sorry for a late reply.

  7. hari kumar silwal said,

    i finished ‘the namesake’ in just three sittings. ofcourse i read dozens of different types of books every year i dont really know where they belong in literature, theoretically. i just read to undersatnd people, place n products n also to develop empathy over the characters which i can finally relate to my real life. the book is REAL explanation of people, place situation n feeling in such an incredible crystal clear langaue. being non-native of english it helped me brush up my english also. description cultural n generation gap is so nicely illustrated. i feel pitty about ashoke who couldnt enjoy the fruit of all his life long struggle. but gogol (nikhil) though ended with tragedy he fairly had a nice life before. when i went reading i found myself amongst the character n in the scene, this is where jhumpa’s speciality lies, i think. please keep writing. congratulations.- hari k silwal( from nepal)

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thank you for sharing these insights. What you say about Ashoke is so true. The film is actually fresher in my mind right now than the book. The actors playing Ashoke and his wife are superb.

      Judging from what you’ve written here, your English is coming along beautifully!

  8. Tanvir Sunny said,

    Hi,I hv read the entire book and saw the movie itself.Honestly speaking I really like the work done by Mira Nair in the film and the acting by the actors as well. But my feels say its really hard to resemble a novel like Namesake into the strap of film.
    To me Namesake seems having many sights and sometimes the story itself is a enchanting view to see from our life abroad where we encounters a perspective of a different culture.
    jhumapa Lahiri is really brilliant sewer of words to present a masterpiece of literature.

  9. The power of understatement: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Mueenudin’s writing puts me in mind of other masters of the short form:  Joan Silber, Jhumpa Lahiri, and William Trevor among them. Also, with their air of quiet fatalism, these stories made me think […]

  10. newguddi said,

    Agree when you say Jhumpa Lahiri is a master of short narration. Her story telling ability is just so unique and awesome.It feels so real. I liked the way you described it. Loved your review..:)

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for the gracious comment. I am finding the writing of reviews to be much harder work than I anticipated when I first began blogging, so compliments like your mean a great deal to me!

  11. Nirmal Thapa said,

    word-master is rare thing so its really diffulties to find HERSELF as a master-line.But im not worried to add infornt of her name; a seeker who knows onething that is NOthing.hum simply unstopable!

  12. Five favorite fiction titles of the new millennium (actually eighteen, with twelve nonfiction titles and some music thrown in for good measure) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] not be more different from each other, yet both, in their uniqueness, are superb. I reviewed the Lahiri at some length in this space; the Silber, more briefly. When asked to select a book and lead the […]

  13. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] – Alice Munro Museum of Dr. Moses – Joyce Carol Oates Cheating at Canasta – William Trevor Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories – Joan […]

  14. mohamad said,

    I like to see your message

  15. Douglas W. Pope said,

    I fell in love with her writing when I was in my late-teens/early twenties, and I credit her as being part of the reason that I went back to school to study creative writing. That said, as much as I respect her writing and narrative ability, she is truly one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life.

  16. popi said,

    i read the Novel The Namesake it is very intersting story concern on bengali family . who lives in overseas. i like very fun things on it.

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