Sunday, February 9, 2014

UNACCUSTOMED EARTH by Jhumpa Lahiri (fic)

I loved this book of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri.  I enjoyed it much more than her newer book The Lowland which I reviewed in December.  Each one of these eight stories is a gem and could be turned into a full length book if the author so chose.  Instead they stand perfectly as they are.  Lahiri is a Bengali, born in London and raised in Rhode Island.  She writes what is familiar to her, and all these stories take place in such realistic settings that you know the author has been there.  As in all her work, sense of place is strong in these stories and plays a role in enriching the characters and the lives they have chosen.  The settings range from Seattle in the first story, to Massachusetts, Rome, Calcutta and Thailand.  As before, her characters are largely immigrants feeling their way in new surroundings, determined to succeed and goal driven. 

Lahiri writes strong realistic dialogue which increases the readers involvement in the lives of the characters.  For the brief time we are immersed in each story, we become eavesdroppers on what appears to be real life occurrences.  Death or a sense of it is a thread that winds through the entire book. 

The author has chosen to preface this book with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne's book, The Custom-House:  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.

Each main character is challenged by his/her unfamiliar surroundings and must make major decisions which affect their lives before moving on to complete their growth.  Sometimes this involves love and relationships, sometimes it involves decisions that will affect families, jobs and careers.  I enjoyed all the stories, but my favorites were the last three tales which told the story of two young people as they become adults.  Hema, a Latin professor at Wellesley and Kaushik, a photojournalist, were thrown together in childhood.  Both threw off their heritage and made careers for themselves, quite independent from family ideals.  The first story is told from Hema's viewpoint as she addresses Kaushik, the second from Kaushik's viewpoint as he addresses Hema.  And, the third, tells us what became of these characters and how their paths recross. 

I highly recommend Unaccustomed Earth to all readers.  If you, like me, rarely read short story collections, I urge to give this book a try.  There is a lot of humanity to be found in its pages and a window with which to view the immigrant experience.

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