Unaccustomed EarthPosted: January 26, 2016
I have long planned on reading Jhumpa Lahiri, so I took advantage of this title being on sale through Book Riot to read her work for the first time. Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of stories, longer than short stories, but shorter than novellas. All of the stories are about Indian immigrants, specifically from the Bengali community, who have found their way to the United States. They are all involved in academia in some way, and most of them are in one way or another in the New England corridor, often in the Harvard/MIT orbit. The opening story, however, takes place in Seattle.
Part One consists of five unrelated stories. Lahiri varies the voice from one story to the next. While one story is told by an omniscient narrator who knows the thoughts of her characters, another story is told by an omniscient narrator who is more removed. One of the stories is told from a first person perspective.
Part Two is entitled “Hema and Kaushik.” This part of the book consists of three independent stories. Hema is the daughter of an Indian-American couple whose friends are the parents of their son Kaushik. The first story takes place when they are children, and is written in the first person with Hema speaking to Kaushik. The second takes place while Kaushik is in college, again in the first person with Kaushik addressing Hema. In the final story both are adults out in the world. It is written in the third person.
The time frame is vaguely the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. There is talk of roommates sharing a corded telephone and a reference to The Empire Strikes Back being in theaters. There is a lot of back and forth travel between India and the United States. You would think that was a simple as the Amtrak trip from New Haven to New York City.
As for happy endings? Not many. But Unaccustomed Earth offers fascinating insight into Bengali-American culture, and Lahiri’s prose in and of itself makes this book worth reading.