Review: Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Beginning in America, and spilling back over memories and generations to India, Unaccustomed Earth explores the heart of family life and the immigrant experience. Eight luminous stories – longer and richer than any Jhumpa Lahiri has yet written – take us from America to Europe, India and Thailand as they follow new lives forged in the wake of loss.

For quite a while now, Lahiri has been loitering on my list of authors TBR, fuelled by various recommendations on Instagram by people like Mindy Kaling. (On a separate note, and before we get straight into talking Unaccustomed Earth, this article which pulls together a list of the books which Kaling has recommended on Instagram is worth a glance over).

So, on to Lahiri and Unaccustomed Earth. For those of you who are as unaware of Lahiri as I was, she is an American writer, born in London to Bengali immigrants. Her first collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. Unaccustomed Earth, her second book of short stories, shot straight to the number 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

The short stories in Unaccustomed Earth are split into 2 parts. Part 1 is comprised of 5 individual and unrelated tales, while part 2 offers three linked stories dealing with the relationship between Hema and Kaushik, two first-generation Americans born of Indian parents, over the course of decades between America and India.

Throughout the eight stories; Lahiri interweaves the immigrant experience with universally identifiable issues with poignancy and precision. Her protagonists are the children of immigrants to America; finding themselves caught between the culture of their parents and that of their homeland. Themes of fractious relationships between parents and children run throughout; uniquely immigrant experiences intermingled with universal issues – the death of a parent, alcoholism, broken hearts, unrequited love. Characters caught in that period of time after having a child, still adjusting to their new role in life. Our protagonists are trapped between their two cultures, tradition and respect for elders pitted against the American dream and desire for freedom.

The stories of Hema and Kaushik are narrated to each other; opening with Hema’s account of Kaushik’s arrival, departure and return to her life as a teenager, 8 years later. Annoyed at having to give up her room for someone she doesn’t even know when her parents open their home to thir friends; Hema is embarrassed to find herself attracted to Kaushik when they meet again, especially given his apparent disdain at being back in the United States.

“Do you hate it here?” I asked.

“I liked living in India,” you said.

When reluctant to invite him out with her friends; her mother highlights Kaushik’s predicament and the challenges he is going through, pointing out as someone who has gone through it themselves that that Hema cannot really identify with what he is feeling:

“But he doesn’t even like me.” I complained.

“Of course he likes you” my mother said, blind to the full implication of what I’d said. “He’s adjusting, Hema. It’s something you’ve never had to go through.”

Kaushik’s narrative picks up a few years later, during which time his mother has died; and his father has remarried to a widow with two young girls. It illustrates Kaushik’s difficulty in accepting the marriage, arranged by relatives between two people who had only known each other a few weeks. His father’s new wife, Chitra, and her daughters Rupa and Piu relocate to Massachusetts and find themselves going through the same harsh adjustment adjustment as Kaushik once did. He struggles with seeing them in the space that he associates so strongly with his mother – only with the passing of time can he learn to come to terms with this change.

In the final short story of the collection, Hema and Kaushik are united, completely by chance, in Rome. The storytelling reverts to third person this time; bringing in both Hema and Kaushik together and allowing a little distance between the reader and the narrator to observe the culmination of these 3 linked stories.

At once simple and complex, this is a short story collection that will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.

 

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