Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

24/05/08, The Times

With her third book, Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri returns to the short story, the form that made her name with her first, Pulitzer-winning book, Interpreter of Maladies. There are similarities, or rather, a uniformity of themes and concerns over her oeuvre that is beginning to mark her out as an artist in the mould of Faulkner or Andrei Tarkovsky, returning to a chosen subject with an artistic faithfulness and tenacity; in her three books so far, she has written almost exclusively about the Bengali immigrant experience in the USA, of both the first and the second generations. Unaccustomed Earth is no different: eight long short stories – the shortest nearly 25 pages, the longest, almost 60 – in which the final three are linked and really comprise a short novel all return to her favoured subject with characteristic lucidity and empathy. But there are vital shifts too: the preoccupation with the condition of exile and the nuanced meanings of home and identity has given way to an emphasis on familial bonds, bonds between parents and children, between husband and wife, between siblings.

The last three stories, under the section heading ‘Hema and Kaushik’, unfolding over thirty years, modulate from narratives of family, loss and geographical restlessness that is the lot of the exile to a heartbreaking love-story. Hema is six, American-born daughter of Bengali parents living in Massachusetts, when her parents’ friends, the Choudhuris, along with their nine-year-old son, Kaushik, decide to leave the US to return to Calcutta. But seven years later, they’re back again for good, temporarily staying as guests in Hema’s parents’ home while looking for their own perfect house. Hema keeps her crush on Kaushik well-hidden while the Choudhuris hide a more devastating secret, soon to be made public. The second story takes the measure of Kaushik in his attempts to come to terms with the death of his beloved mother and with his father’s new wife, a Bengali widow called Chitra, and her two daughters, Rupa and Piu. The final story unites Hema, about to fly out to India to get married, and Kaushik, now a freelance photographer, in Rome.   Voiced, in turn, by Hema first, then Kaushik, and then the omniscient narrator, until the coda takes us back to Hema, the section is an unparalleled distillation, even by Lahiri’s own stratospheric standards, of aching tenderness, marked by different types of irredeemable losses.

The title story, a small miracle of sympathy and restraint, sees an elderly Bengali father travel from Philadelphia to Seattle to visit his daughter, Ruma, and her son, Akash. Ruma feels under pressure to ask her father, now made so lonely by her mother’s sudden and premature death, to come and live with her family but, unknown to her, he has other plans for his future. “Hell-Heaven” is a story of a mother’s secret, potentially adulterous love, never expressed, never consummated, perhaps never even articulated consciously by her to her own self, narrated by her daughter. Two stories, “Only Goodness” and “Nobody’s Business”, see Lahiri stray from the centrality of her theme of Bengali immigrant lives, although the protagonists are certainly that, and the results are considerably weaker.  The former is about how a brother’s alcoholism comes to ruin a dutiful and loving sister’s family, the latter a study in the fissures and damages of romantic love, taking in serial unfaithfulness and a very subtle form of voyeurism brought about by hopeless infatuation.

It’s difficult to think of a contemporary writer who gives her characters so much dignity, treats them with such utter delicacy and respect. Like the greatest short story writers, she reveals immense inner lives by holding back so much. The result is fiction of matchless restraint, yet also of rich, complex lives of completely credible characters: her people live and breathe on the page and cast shadows. And then there is her style – a principle of clarity itself, chaste, elegant, luminous. A ‘plain’ style such as this always risks crossing that thin line over towards the parched austerity of Coetzee or the cultivated flatness of Ishiguro but Lahiri manages to exercise restraint here too.  It is a book of such intense and surpassing humanity that it adds to that abstract noun.