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Book Review: Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed EarthEver since the publication of her mesmerizing, Pulitzer Prize winning debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri has established herself as one of modern fiction’s most powerful voices. The stories in that collection showcased what was to become Lahiri’s trademark: acute psychological observations, eloquent writing, detailed descriptions, and a fiercely intelligent structure. As in poetry, each word feels carefully chosen, yet the overall ease with which the narratives flow belies the effort that undoubtedly went into them. Interpreter of Maladies also served to debut Lahiri’s dominant theme in that each story featured Indian characters struggling to adapt to new surroundings after immigrating to the U.S. Her sophomore effort, The Namesake expanded this theme into a wonderful full-length novel about the gap between a boy born and raised in America and his immigrant parents, who cling to their old traditions and ways of life. Lahiri, who was herself born in London but raised in New England, has made a career out of telling stories of cultural displacement, and until now she never once faltered when it came to crafting a powerful story.

Unaccustomed Earth marks Lahiri’s return to the short story format, and while I had been looking forward to it with high anticipation, the product is surprising. Perhaps Lahiri succeeded at the transition from short stories to novels a little too well, because suddenly it feels like she has much more to say in an all-too-limited page count. The shortest story in the collection is “Hell-Heaven,” which at twenty-four pages would have been right at home in Interpreter of Maladies, and while it is one of the better offerings it feels clipped, as though there was so much more to say and not enough time to say it. Instead, the stories in Unaccustomed Earth verge on novella territory, allowing Lahiri to indulge in the slow-burn style she perfected in The Namesake. The last three stories interlock to tell a single story in three parts, completing this effect. There aren’t many authors who are at their best when they take their time, but Lahiri seems to be one of them. But this is a minor complaint.

I do, however, have more pointed concerns after reading Lahiri’s latest work. Firstly, she seems to have acquired a taste for the melodramatic that doesn’t suit her elegant style at all. Lahiri’s writing is always very restrained when it comes to emotions, which is one of her strong suits, so when she indulges in plot contrivances such as alcoholism and abusive relationships it feels forced and more than a little jarring. Quiet desperation is more apt for her style; it is what makes it feel so authentic. Melodrama makes it feel theatrical. The high points of Unaccustomed Earth are its beginning and ending, “Unaccustomed Earth” and the saga of Hema and Kaushik, which notably steer clear of these plot elements. Luckily, Lahiri seems incapable of writing anything that doesn’t maintain a grip on realism, but it still felt out of place to this reader.

Secondly, Lahiri’s characters are starting to suffer from a degree of sameness. Perhaps that is why she infused the melodrama that I just discussed into the collection’s middle section, but the fact that each character seems to have an ivy-league education and a doctorate and strikingly similar back stories still begins to feel stultifying.

Despite these complaints, Lahiri remains one of the most psychologically astute writers out there, and her keen plotting and pointed observations make Unaccustomed Earth tower head and shoulders above most other literary offerings. And even though I feel warier about what direction her next book will take, I still have the utmost faith in her abilities and look forward to it with the same degree of anticipation that I waited for Unaccustomed Earth.

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This entry was posted on April 18, 2008 by in Book Review and tagged , , , , .
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