Sunday, April 27, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth

I bought myself a present the other day...Unaccustomed Earth, the latest collection of short stories by Jhunpa Lahiri. Of all the bookstacks I own, you will find only one other short story collection...Interpreter of Maladies,by Jhumpa Lahriri. Any guesses about my favorite short story author? And remember when I didn't even care for short stories? (Before I joined this challenge!)

I read the title story immediately, and it was absolutely gorgeous. It lingered in my mind all day, lingered so powerfully that I occasionally picked the book up as I passed by just to dip in and re-read a paragraph or a page.

While her father was in the shower, she made tea. It was a ritual she liked, a formal recognition of the day turning into evening in spite of the sun not setting. When she was on her own, these hours passed arbitrarily. She was grateful for the opportunity to sit on the porch with her father, with the teapot and the bowl of salted cashews and the plate of Nice biscuits, looking at the lake and listening to the vast breeze work its way through the treetops, a grander version of the way Akash used to sigh when he was a baby, full of contentment, in the depths of sleep. The leaves flickered as if with internal light, shivering though the air was not cold. Akash was asleep, exhausted from playing outdoors all day, and the house was filled with silence.

Unaccustomed Earth tells the story of Ruma, a young mother recently transplanted from New York to Seattle. Her father comes to visit, his first visit since the death of Ruma's mother and he's keeping a secret from Ruma - he's become involved with another woman. Meanwhile, Ruma struggles to find her equilibrium in this new life, trying to reach out to her father, yet not quite knowing how. It's just an equisite story, exploring the connection between parent and child on several levels, and the process of taking root in new ground both emotionally and physically.

Every story in this collection is a masterpiece. As much as I loved The Namesake, Lahiri's novel, she is an absolute master of the short story, and I can see why she returned to the genre for her second book. She may well be this generation's Alice Munroe, the writer who makes a name for herself with an entire oeuvre of short stories. With this collection (as with Interpreter of Maladies) I never for a second felt the sense of incompleteness short stories sometimes lend. Her characters are so complex, her prose so dense and delectable, the reader feels as if they are immersed in a full length novel.

But by far the most riveting of all are the three linked stories that make up Part II of the book. In Hema and Kaushik, we follow the fates of two people who first meet as children when their parents share a house one winter. Their lives separate and intersect in unusual and occasionally painful ways, until destiny brings them together one last time.

From the moment they arrived together at Paola and Edo's, it was assumed, by the other guests, that they were old friends. One of the guests had even assumed they were lovers, asking how long they had been together, how they had met. "Our parents," Kaushik had said lightly, but Hema thought back, saddened by those two simple words. She was aware that he had not corrected the guest's assumption. Aware, too, of the way he looked at her across the table during lunch, surprised by the allure that had come to her late. He looked the same to her, that was the astonishing thing. The sharp faced boy who had stepped reluctantly into her parents home. Only the eyes appeared tired, the skin surrounding them now darker, faintly bruised. She still remembered her first impression of him...remembered the ridiculous attraction she had felt that night when she was thirteen years old, and that she had so secretly nurtured during the weeks they lived together. It was as if no time had passed.

Hema and Kaushik is a brilliant elegy to life and to love, to family relationships and the power of fate, and the ways they interact. It could easily stand alone as a poignant and perfect novella.

As in Interpreter of Maladies, all Lahiri's characters have the common thread of nationality to bind them. But their ethnicity is not necessarily the "unaccustomed earth" to which the title refers. Most of them are traversing new emotional territory, much of it regarding loss - of a parent, a partner, an ideal. Relationships are explored in painstaking detail, as in "Only Goodness," where an older sister tries her best to provide her younger brother with "the perfect childhood," and is so bitterly disappointed when his alcoholism prevents them from having the adult relationship she desires.

Lahiri chose a quotation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's as the epigraph for this collection: "Human nature will not flourish...if it be planted and replanted for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children...shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth." This proves to be the perfect metaphor for each of Lahiri's characters, in a volume of elegant, emotionally exquisite stories.

cross posted at Bookstack


Anonymous said...

I have to admit, I don't care for Lahiri's short stories. I find them cold and unmoving, and crafted almost like she were in a writing workshop. The characters seemed more concerned with money and status than with real life. I want to read about real people, people who could be real, not pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-rich transplants who lament their transplantation. *shrug* Literature is subjective

Rebecca Reid said...

I really liked Interpreter of Maladies; I'll have to give this collection a try as well. Thanks for the review.