Jhumpa Lahiri, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Interpreter of Maladies, and author of The Namesake, returns after five years with Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of eight stories that are longer than short stories but not quite novella length. It’s split into two parts. The first consists of five individual stories, while the second part consists of the last three tales, each involving the same two characters: Hema and Kaushik.
The first story, “Unaccustomed Earth,” involves a family who recently moved to Seattle. After the death of Ruma’s mother, she is left feeling guilty over the decision of whether or not to invite her aging Baba (father), to live with them. Not sure how to handle this, she invites him to stay with her for a week. Over the course of their time together, father and daughter rekindle their relationship, while secrets are revealed about their separate lives. Baba also meets and falls in love with Ruma’s son, Akash, looking after him, teaching him some Bengali, and treating him like a grandfather should – giving him more respect and attention than he has ever given Ruma. At the end of the week, Baba goes back home to his secret girlfriend and life of travel, leaving Ruma unsure, and the reader wanting more. “Unaccustomed Earth” sets the tone for the book, which offers stories of lives with problems and decisions and changes that affect all the characters. But it is those of Indian descent who have to deal with how much of their original culture they hold on to in their American lives.
“A Choice of Accommodations” is an interesting story about an interracial couple who are having problems with their marriage. During a weekend attending a friend’s wedding, they rediscover their love and respect for each other. The most compelling story of the collection is “Nobody’s Business,” involving a young Indian girl, Sangeeta, who is involved with an Egyptian man, but continuously has suitors calling her with the hope of a meeting and eventual marriage. What makes the story interesting is that it is told from the perspective of the roommate, Paul, who has a crush on Sang, and finds himself unavoidably involved in her romantic and personal life while trying to complete his doctorate. At first the story seems to go in an obvious direction, it eventually moves off on a new tangent as things change in Sang’s relationship and she ends up moving back to England, with Paul having to deal with the leftover pieces.
Lahiri continues to do what she does best, creating strong, unique characters who stay with readers after the story is over. Sadly, Lahiri fails to take risks with her writing, always portraying Indian characters who – like herself – come from an affluent, upper class upbringing, in most cases in New York or New England. Perhaps in her next work, Lahiri will branch out from her write what you know world and venture into new territory. Nevertheless, Unaccustomed Earth is a fascinating collection of stories involving Indian characters struggling with issues involved in being American, but at the same time keeping their original heritage and culture alive.
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Originally written on April 25th, 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.