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Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth [2 April, 2008]

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Written by Jhumpa Lahiri; $25; Knopf; 333 pages

Unaccustomed Earth is Jhumpa Lahiri’s

new collection of short stories, and it doesn’t stray far from the literal and fictional territory, of aliens living alienated lives, that she’s

best known for. But it does take the reader away from adults by focusing on their offspring. Part One is a set of five discrete stories, while Part Two’s three tales are linked by protagonists Hema and Kaushik. The results are fresher than Lahiri’s previous work, and her typically somber characters yield insights into more than the awkwardness of straddling two cultures.

 
Lahiri is especially good at portraying children. She’s never condescending, and she grants them complex thoughts and inner lives. In “Year”s End,” Piu and Mia are only seven and ten. But they’re also preternaturally adult, and gracious and polite towards their shockingly cruel and much older stepbrother Kaushik, even years after he subjects them to a humiliating tirade about their mother. In other stories, children must work at becoming typical American teenagers and simultaneously help their parents navigate a strange land, their foreignness always in evidence. Lahiri has an especially sharp eye for the details of social class. In “Once in a Lifetime,” the upward mobility of Hema’s parents is in stark contrast to the easy wealth of Kaushik’s world. In India, the two families would never have met. In America, they’re thrown together out of the necessity of bonding as foreigners.
 
While Lahiri provides interesting and nuanced glimpses into what happens when immigrants grow up in and into the countries they inhabit, she’s on unsure footing with emotional weight, leaving plots struggling to match the portentousness with which she imbues them. For instance: Crushes are common in these stories, either fumbled with in close quarters or savored at a distance. In “Nobody’s Business,” Paul secretly admires his roommate Sangeeta and watches her romance with Farouk, who turns out to be unfaithful to her. Distraught, she asks Paul to drive her to Farouk’s home; confronts him; breaks a vase; tries to lock herself in a closet; and eventually has to be dragged out by the police. Stripped to the plot’s essentials: Sangeeta is obsessed with Farouk and Paul has a crush on her. It’s like an episode of Friends, only sadder.
 
And then there are the endings. Lahiri’s best in stories like “Year’s End,” where the emotional distance and coldness between people are left to linger, without any false or saccharine attempts at reconciliation. It’s the power of the unsaid that conveys the full force of Kaushik’s betrayal, and which creates one of the best pieces in the collection. But in “Hell-Heaven” and “Going Ashore,” the endings are downright cheesy—torn from the headlines and tacked onto stories that could have benefited from more ambiguity.
 
 Unaccustomed Earth is fresher than Lahiri’s previous work, but it often seems like too much is made of slight situations. And it also suffers from the numbness that’s described perfectly in “Only Goodness,” as one character recalls her parent’s marriage: “It was neither happy nor unhappy, and the lack of emotion in either extreme was what upset Sudha most.”
 
Originally published in Windy City Times, 2 April, 2008.


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