Saturday, April 25, 2009

Book Review: Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri


Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Isn't it the most delicious feeling when you discover a new-to-you author? I certainly think so. I'd heard of Jhumpa Lahiri, of course, but I hadn't read any of her work until Unaccustomed Earth. You can be sure I'll be reading more by this incredibly talented writer.

Unaccustomed Earth
is a collection of eight short stories involving several Bengali families living in the United States. (The last three stories are all connected as a triptych.) Lahiri explores the themes of familial and marital relations in these stories, all of which have incredibly well-drawn and identifiable characters. She writes with detail about the cultural and generational gaps between parents and their adult children.

In each story - and I loved each one - there seemed to be a moment of dramatic tension or suspense. It was subtle, in some cases, but present enough to register that something was going to happen. Usually it was something not exactly foreseen (especially true for the last story.)

I confess an unfamiliarity with Bengali culture, so I wasn't certain what to expect from Unaccustomed Earth. I needn't have worried because although the characters are Bengali, the dramatic conflict in the stories (a sibling's struggle with alcoholism, a parent's remarriage, unrequited love) are universal. Other reviewers on Amazon have commented that it seems as if Lahiri is going back to the well too often by presenting similar themes and characters as in her previous works, but since I haven't read those, I can't comment on that. This criticism does seem to surface regularly enough to mention here.

I love short stories and always have. I'd never listened to a short story collection on audio, though, and if you're new to audiobooks, I think this would be a good one to try. The stories are of a longer length than that of a typical short story, which lends itself nicely to audio.

The title comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Custom-House" in which he writes: "Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces and so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."

Unaccustomed Earth was just released in paperback earlier this month and it is well worth the read. I enjoyed this tremendously and look forward to reading more by Jhumpa Lahiri. My rating: 4 stars. (I'm actually not sure why I'm not giving it 5. There's no reason, but something is holding me back. I usually reserve those for books I can't put down, and this didn't have quite that strong of a pull for me. Maybe that's all it is, I dunno.)

What Other Book Bloggers are Saying:
(if I missed yours, feel free to leave me a link in the comments and I'll add it.)

And this from the New York Times Book Review

1 comment:

Wendy said...

Lovely review of this book! This was also my first Lahiri book and I can't wait to read another by her. Thanks so much for the link to my review :)