by Jhumpa Lahiri
Random House, 2008
Short stories. I tend to shy away from them. I prefer the leisurely pace of the novel, with its leisurely development of character and plot. But I’ve always appreciated the world Lahiri opens for me, offering inside views of the issues and stresses that the children of immigrants encounter, one foot in their parents country of origin, one foot in the American culture into which they are born. And that’s what drew me to this collection, Unaccustomed Earth.
You’ll find that the book is divided into two parts. The first part consists of five stories, which are unrelated, yet deal, all of them with the complexities of relationships: family relationships, sexual relationships, marriage relationships. And because relationships are universal stories no matter the culture, they’re easy to dive into.
Part II consists of just three stories which weave together the lives of Hema and Kaushik, both children of immigrant parents who met because their parents were close friends at the time, a part of the Indian community that formed in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many of them were taking advanced degrees and then staying on in jobs related to their fields of study.
In the first story, Hema, a bit strangely I found, keeps referring to a “you.” It takes us awhile to realize she is speaking to the young adolescent boy who is staying at her house with his parents, though we will not learn that this is Kaushik until the next story where we view the world through his point of view. The last story brings Hema and Kaushik together in Rome, decades after their first encounter. By the time you finish the third story you have almost forgotten the first five. In part I think because the last three have the feel of a novella– the three stories, each longer than any of the first five, constitute roughly the second half of the book. And being last, as well as powerful, these last three stories linger longer.
In writing workshops we sometimes ask, “What do you envy about this writing?” What I envy is Lahiri’s seemingly endless supply of stores – and first lines! John Grisham has just come out with a collection of short stories. Stories he wasn’t sure had enough to sustain a full novel. Lahiri, I suppose would identity. And I envy that.
Finally a quote I can’t forget from the last story, Going Ashore. Kaushik is recalling his work as a photo journalist:
“He was reminded of his family’s moves every time he visited another refugee camp, every time he watched a family combing through rubble for their possessions. In the end, that was life: a few plates, a favorite comb, a pair of slippers, a child’s string of beads.” (p.309)