This feels a little like cheating since I started this book in the death throes of 2016. In my defence, I’ve had this short story collection on my shelves for a while and finished it ten hours into 2017. So I’m making the call: it counts. In fact, I didn’t even buy it in the first place. It came to me in a box of short story collections that I won in a writing contest, which must count as the best prize ever (aside from a giant novelty cheque). So with that in mind, I definitely think it’s an appropriate start to the Year of No New Books.
Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favourite writers and the reason this book languished unread for so long on my shelves is that I thought I’d already read it. I remember confidently exclaiming to a friend that I’d read everything Lahiri’s ever written after finishing the English translation of her book of essays In Other Words.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I picked up Lahiri’s first short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies. I consider this book to be one of the best short story collections ever written. At this point I should mention that in addition to naming 2017 as the year I kick my book buying addiction, it is also meant to be the year I finish the first draft of my own short story collection. Clearly, I’m an idiot with pretensions to being an overachiever. Anyway, this explains my desire to reread The Interpreter of Maladies – I wanted to discover the secret to the perfect short story so I could steal it for my own work. But as so often happens when confronted with brilliant literature, I was swept away and completely forgot my analytical objectives. Before I knew it, I had finished the book and all I could recall was my pleasure in Lahiri’s insight and beautifully composed sentences and my awe at the way in which she constructs completely believable characters that so perfectly illustrate the difficulties and anxieties of the Indian immigrant experience in America. Damn it.
Which brings me to Unaccustomed Earth. This was meant to be Learning From Lahiri: Take 2. I realised only a few pages into the title story that I’d been deceiving myself. I was reading this collection for the first time.
These stories are all classic Lahiri in that they explore similar themes to her previous short stories and novels but the point of difference is that these build upon and extend her previous work. The Namesake, The Lowland and The Interpreter of Maladies focussed primarily on the experience of first generation immigrants of Bengali heritage as they adapt to the customs of their new home. Lahiri’s characters struggle with culture shock, trying to reconcile the cultural expectations and values of their Indian heritage with the reality of living in America.
The characters populating the eight stories of Unaccustomed Earth are the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Rather than struggling to reconcile Indian and Bengali culture with American values and lifestyles, these characters have been born in the US and are pretty much assimilated to Western life. These characters face different struggles, primarily the need break free from parental expectations that are still mired in what to them seem to be restrictive and conventional Indian custom. American individualism clashes with Indian community values and responsibilities within the microcosm of the extended Indian-American family.
These stories are all long form and Lahiri uses this extended format to cover broader timeframes, exploring the above themes over decades in her characters’ lives. It’s addictive writing. We are drawn into these families, empathising with them as siblings, parents and grandparents move across the world, marry, have children, divorce, remarry, die. Lahiri writes beautifully, using language that is simple and direct yet carries a huge emotional load. While I loved the stories of the first section, the three linked stories of part two had me utterly at their mercy. Lahiri is not known for providing her readers with Hollywood-style resolutions, and I love her for that, but I was totally unprepared for the power with which she drew these stories to a close. The final two pages. I can’t say more than that without issuing a spoiler alert. All I can say is – read this book. Even if you think you don’t like short stories then read this book for the last two pages. They just might convert you.