It was like the painting they’d first looked at together in London, the small mirror at the back revealing more than the room at first appeared to contain. – from Only Goodness, page 157 –
Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories – Unaccustomed Earth – reveals more about the relationships between its multi-faceted characters than first appears. Each story seems initially simple and then evolves into a wonderful look at how relationships between husband/wife, brother/sister, girlfriend/boyfriend, and parent/child evolve over time.
In the title story, a young Bengali woman named Ruma relocates to Seattle with her American husband and son as they look forward to the birth of their second child. A visit from Ruma’s father stirs memories of her deceased mother, and forces her to consider her duty as daughter to invite her father to live with her.
Ruma feared that her father would become a responsibility, an added demand, continuously present in a way she was no longer used to. It would mean an end to the family she’d created on her own: herself and Adam and Akash, and the second child that would come in January, conceived just before the move. – from Unaccustomed Earth, page 7 –
But Ruma is unaware that her father has begun to move forward after the loss of his wife, and treasures his new found independence.
He stared out the window at a shelf of clouds that was like miles and miles of densely packed snow one could walk across. The sight filled him with peace; this was his life now, the ability to do as he pleased, the responsibility of his family absent just as all else was absent from the unmolested vision of the clouds. – from Unaccustomed Earth, page 8 –
During his visit, Ruma’s father connects unexpectedly with his grandson, and plants a garden for Ruma. The visit unfolds in an unpredictable way, bringing a deeper understanding of both father and daughter; and opening a door to a new relationship.
This simple first story, rich in detail and expertly crafted, introduces the stories to come with the common theme of growing and changing relationships over time and how these changed relationships accommodate, or not, the needs of the characters. Each story involves a Bengali family or individual who has immigrated to America. In some stories, the characters are drawn back to India; in others they find a place for themselves in America; in still others, they are drawn to seek their future far from either place. The stories are also about loss – the loss of innocence, or intimacy, or love, or even life itself.
But death too, had the power to awe, she knew this now – that a human being could be alive for years and years, thinking and breathing, full of a million worries and feelings and thoughts, taking up space in the world, and then, in an instant, become absent, invisible. – from Unaccustomed Earth, page 46 –
The final three stories of the collection – interconnected by character – are actually more of a novella. In Once in a Lifetime, Hema recollects her childhood in Massachusetts when she meets Kaushik, the son of her parent’s close friends. Hema speaks directly to Kaushik in the narration, a technique which while unsettling, serves to bind the two characters together. The second story titled Year’s End, picks up the narration years later from Kaushik’s point of view as he deals with his father’s second marriage after the untimely death of Kaushik’s mother. In the final story titled Coming Ashore, Hema and Kaushik meet unexpectedly in Rome only weeks before Hema is to become married via an arranged marriage in India. These stories once again emphasize the growth of the characters and how this growth impacts and changes their relationship to each other. Lahiri also examines the cultural conflict between America and India as it reflects on the characters’ decisions.
Lahiri is a gifted storyteller, one who writes effortlessly and ties together complex themes with ease. Her writing is often simple, yet beautifully constructed with rich detail and in-depth characterizations. Readers who might shy away from short stories will find themselves delighted with Lahiri’s ability to make them feel connected to her characters. She compacts their lives in such a way that the reader feels as though they have spent a longer time with them – feeling their joys, sadness, regrets and hopes in rare depth.