Sunday, June 27, 2010

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

If I have a passion for an odd sub-genre of books, it is stories about foreigners adapting to a new culture. I love books like A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth - books that delve into questions of identity and ethnicity and interacting as a minority. Over the years I have found myself searching out books whose plots revolve around the individual struggles of people in flux. It was an interest in this type of story that brought me to Jhumpa Lahiri in the first place. I read The Namesake and then I saw the movie. The book was better (isn't it always) but the movie was actually quite good.

I have been coveting Unaccustomed Earth for absolutely months and finally got a copy from the library. I devoured the stories in a couple of days. While I loved the book I would have liked a novel better than short stories - but that's just me. I like the development of a novel-length plot. In Unaccustomed Earth Lahiri writes about Bengali-Americans who all interact with their families and deal with their joint cultural identities as integral definitions of their self. I had two favorite stories. One dealt with three post-grad roommates with little in common other than their shared apartment. The Indian girl gets regular calls from Indian men proposing a meet-up for the possibility of a future marriage. But she is heavily involved in a less than healthy relationship. Her American doctoral candidate roommate gets unwittingly involved in her affairs.

The best of the book in my opinion (which plays to my preference for longer stories) is the three-part novella style "Hema and Kaushik." The story unfolds in three parts, each part being narrated by either Hema or Kaushik. These two individuals have a shared family background. Over time their paths cross again and they find their heritage and future life choices brings them together in a way they would not have anticipated.

Lahiri's stories are poignant. While there is something about her characters which make them (maybe) uniquely Indian, she is attuned to universal themes in the relationships between family and friends. Certain aspects reminded me of filial duties I have had friends of mine express in the past. I believe Lahiri is becoming an Amy Tan for the 21st century: a voice for "her people." I would be curious to read more about how she feels about this role because while there is a universality to her stories each of the characters are fiercely unique and independent and not easily categorized by his/her ethnicity and/or identity.

I will happily read more of Lahiri's work. I have not yet read Interpreter of Maladies - a heavily lauded compilation of short stories (heck, it won the Pulitzer Prize) only because I don't gravitate towards short stories. But I have no doubt I will in the future.

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