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Unaccustomed Earth Jhumpa Lahiri

The idea of excess, of being out of control, did not appeal to Sudha. Competence: this was the trait that fundamentally defined her."

Reviewed by Vanessa Gebbie

Of the eight stories in this collection the title story is my favourite. Four or five reads in and Unaccustomed Earth still gives up its treasures, as each scene seems to contain more and more images and references that deepen the whole. And yet nothing seems placed. This writer’s style appears natural and effortless. The prose flows by smoothly, beautifully. The central character of this story, the first in the collection, is Ruma, a lawyer and second- generation Bengali living in the USA. She is married to an American. They have a child, Akash, who is three, and she is pregnant again. She is very isolated. Her husband’s work has moved them to Seattle, where she knows no one, and Ruma has given up work to look after Akash before he goes to school. Despite herself, she finds herself living the life she was determined to rise above: “Her mother’s example – moving to a foreign place for the sake of marriage, caring exclusively for children and a household – had served as a warning, a path to avoid. Yet this was Ruma’s life, now.” Her husband is away for a week, and she is visited for the first time since her mother’s unexpected death, by her widowed father. The story contains moments of aching poignancy as memories rise up and as Ruma and her father seek to find comfortable common ground. The story switches seamlessly between their two points of view, and between story present and memory. Lahiri explores with great tenderness what it is to be pulled in different directions in the small struggles that surface for them both each day of her father’s short visit. 

Lahiri knows about children. Akash is a wonderful little character, the perfect catalyst to allow his mother and his grandfather to discover things about each other that they do not want to reveal openly. There are many types of unaccustomed earth, literal and metaphorical. Ruma’s garden, untended and bare, is planted by her father during his visit, with help (both hilariously and movingly) from Akash. After her father’s departure, I like to think that the garden will thrive. 

The isolation and disempowerment of Ruma sets the theme for the collection. In Hell Heaven, we have a switch to a first person narration in a much shorter story, exploring the narrator’s role as chaperone to her own mother when the mother becomes infatuated with a visitor. Here it is the mother’s isolation that takes centre stage. In A Choice of Accommodation the central character is Amit, who returns to his old boarding school with his American wife, for a wedding. Amit had been the "only Indian student" at the school, “…he was crippled with homesickness, missing his parents to the point where tears often filled his eyes, in those first months, without warning.” His own marriage is stale. The wedding is that of a girl he once had a crush on. In Hell Heaven and A Choice of Accommodation, the final scenes are surprising, upping the relatively quiet tempo of both narratives. 

It is this quietness that characterizes Lahiri’s work. Nowhere do you find sharp twists and turns, soundbites or authorial tricks. The stories are simply good. The prose is simply good. There is no need for this writer to fall back on shock tactics of any sort to get noticed. Although there is one use of the "f" word… and when it comes it does shock. That is refreshing! 

In Only Goodness, we meet Sudha. Her struggle is with an alcoholic brother. I must admit, there was a moment in this story when I questioned the placid somewhat lukewarm reactions Sudha has to even life-threatening events… but she was, like all the rest, believable for all that. It added to her detachment. I had the same sense at one point in the next story, Nobody’s Business, when the characters seemed extraordinarily well-behaved in stressful situations. And I think this is one of the dangers of reading this writer’s work in snatched moments. Unless she is read quietly, slowly, some of the emotion that rests beneath the words finds it hard to break through to the surface. 

The last three stories in this collection are set apart and are a triptych containing the same two central characters, Hema and Kaushik. They almost make a novella. Whereas many reviewers have found these stories the most satisfying, I do not agree. The first part, Once in Lifetime, is a first person narration, one character addressing the other, and I found it initially hard to sink into a narration in which one character tells the other about their own past… which I figured they would know anyway. It became too transparent a device. “Your parents were seasoned immigrants … they had left India in 1962 … your father had a PhD, he drove a car, a silver Saab with bucket seats to his job at an engineering firm in Andover…”.

As with many of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth, these stories focus partly on the back stories of the previous generation, related through the eyes of the "children". This device allows us to see the distances that have been traveled, geographically and culturally, in order for the characters to have arrived at the narrative present, but it sets up a mild dissonance for me. Its success rests on the readers acceptance that the parents are characters who would be open to their children about events in their past. Including the communication of feelings and emotions. But there seemed to be a degree of formality between the generations in these stories, and I was not always 100% convinced this would be the case. 

Having said that, however, it just shows how good this book is. It is still one of the best collections of short stories I have read. Lahiri credits William Trevor with being one of her inspirations… and her style is reminiscent of his. This is quality stuff. It is a book you will keep on your shelves and return to time and time again, and if as a writer, I can learn from her, I will. 

Choosing a quotation from Unaccustomed Earth was not easy; it is not a book that gives up soundbites without a struggle. In the end, the quotation above describes in some way the tone of Unaccustomed Earth. At no time does the reader find themselves in the presence of a writer who goes for a fast effect. This is not a book for the quickly-snatched moments for which short stories are meant to be ideal. But then I have never agreed with that. Great short stories reveal their layers more and more with each reading, none more so than those in this collection. 

If you approach this collection thinking to skim for plot, however, you will be vastly disappointed, and will wonder what all the fuss is about. But then, I trust no one who reads The Short Review reads like that!

Read one of the stories from this collection on NewYorker.com.

Vanessa Gebbie is a writer, editor and Creative Writing tutor. Her own fiction is widely published and has won many awards (Bridport, Fish, Daily Telegraph, Per Contra among others.) her debut collection Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt Publishing 2008) was nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award. She is also Assistant Editor of Cadenza Magazine, and founded The Fiction Workhouse, an online meeting place for writers. She lives in Sussex, UK.

Vanessa's other Short Reviews:   Brian George "Walking the Labyrinth"

Heidi James, Kay Sexton and Lucy Fry "Two Tall Tales and One Short Novel"

Andy Murray (ed) "Phobic"


PublisherBloomsbury Publishing

Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Hardback

First collection?No

Awards: Winner, Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize

Author bio: Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies. Her second book, a novel, The Namesake, was made into an acclaimed film. Unaccustomed Earth has won many accolades, including the richest award for short story collections in the world, the Frank O’Connor Prize. Jhumpa Lahiri was born in England of Bengali parents. She moved to the USA as a child and now lives there with her husband and children.

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