Jhumpa Lahiri's first short story collection, INTERPRETER OF MALADIES, won the Pulitzer Prize. Her debut novel, THE NAMESAKE, was an international bestseller and, in 2007, was made into a critically praised feature film. Where does this accomplished author go from here?
As her new short story collection, UNACCUSTOMED EARTH, proves, Lahiri's fiction just gets better and better. These eight long, deftly developed stories probe the overarching themes and subjects of her career --- the adjustments made by Bengali immigrants as they attempt to adapt to American culture, the differentiation between "home" and "roots," the ways in which our visions of ourselves are composed both of heritage and new experiences.
The title of the collection comes from a quote by Nathaniel Hawthorne's THE CUSTOMS HOUSE, which serves as the book's epigraph: "Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth." This idea --- of new generations taking root in new soil --- runs through all the stories here.
Lahiri's epigraph is not the only debt she owes to Hawthorne and other classic short-story writers like him. Although her concerns might be modern, Lahiri's mode of storytelling is distinctly old-fashioned, hearkening back to writers like Hawthorne himself, as well as Hardy, Chekhov and Hemingway. Her stories, unlike those of many of the (at times) self-indulgent post-modern story practitioners working today, unfold slowly, gradually, into miniature works of great beauty and profundity. There's nothing flashy here --- no gimmicks, no snarky humor --- just near-impeccable storytelling driven by memorable characters and situations.
In the title story, a woman who has recently moved to Seattle with her American husband and their young son anxiously awaits the arrival of her widowed father, making the first visit since his wife's death. Ruma fears that, in accordance with Bengali custom, her father will expect to move in with the young family. But he has a secret of his own, one that will shape not only their short visit together but also their impressions of one another.
In "Only Goodness," Sudha always looked out for her younger brother Rahul, determined to give him the kind of traditional American childhood she never had, since her parents were too busy adapting to a new country to give her the trappings of childhood indulgence. But when Rahul, now a young man, disappoints his family repeatedly and slips into self-destructive alcoholism, Sudha must decide for herself where to set limits on her allowances for her brother.
Probably the most emotionally wrenching of the stories is the story arc "Hema and Kaushik," a set of three loosely intertwined short stories that follow two children of Bengali immigrants from adolescence to adulthood. Like a good novel, these tales manage to invest readers deeply in their characters, both of whom, like many of Lahiri's characters, find it hard to interpret the true meaning of "home." Those who have shared Hema and Kaushik's decades-long journey will be deeply moved by the final story's closing paragraphs, as both characters encounter very different sorts of tragedies.
Many readers who loved THE NAMESAKE may be reluctant to pick up a collection of short stories, a genre that has gained an unfortunate reputation for inaccessibility and opaqueness. To miss out on this collection, though, would be to overlook not only the best work of Lahiri's stellar career to date but also one of the finest works of fiction published so far this year.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 24, 2011