Friday, April 25, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth

After weeks of waiting anxiously, of reading about how good the book is, I finally got my hands on Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth.

The beauty of Lahiri’s writing is in the ordinariness of it. She has an elegant style but does nothing to draw undue attention to the writing itself; she employs no tricks that distract from her narrative. The stories are also about ordinary topics, about regular people. It is in the simplicity of the scenarios that universal truths resound.

“Unaccustomed Earth,” the first story in the collection, is exactly why Lahiri is such an acclaimed writer. In the story, a widowed father visits his married daughter in Seattle. Ruma debates over inviting her father to move in with her and her family. It is a simple scenario, but I’ve found myself considering the situation for days. What would I do if my mother died? Would I ask my father to move in with me? Could he be happy living with me? Could I be happy living with him?

Although the main characters are all Bengali, these are not stories about or for a specific audience. I can see myself, place myself into these narratives: the struggle with a loved one’s substance abuse, the pain of unrequited love.

As with any collection of short stories, I was drawn to some more than others. The book is split into two sections. The first contains four stories; the second three connected stories. I have mixed feelings about the second section: Hema and Kaushik. These stories veer a bit from Lahiri’s formula. The first two are written in first person, and the third does not rely on ordinary, everyday events. Instead, it turns on a major world event, losing its sense of universality.

I spent several days reading this collection; I could not simply speed through it as I thought I would. The stories have a weightiness of real life that I found was best taken in small doses.

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