Wise tales of life's sadness

April 6, 2008 

  • Unaccustomed Earth

    Jhumpa Lahiri

    Knopf, 352 pages

Jhumpa Lahiri's first two books were more vivid than free. Albums of precision, they depicted a Bengali-American world rich with customs and cuisine, with vermilion striping the parted hair of married women, with second-generation children wielding Ivy League degrees and navigating contradictory worlds. "Unaccustomed Earth" returns to this same upwardly mobile immigrant setting, but it achieves something more profound than either "The Interpreter of Maladies," Lahiri's debut short story collection, or "The Namesake," her novel. The eight longish stories here (three of them interconnected) drop their pose and by rearranging themselves -- shifting against themselves -- achieve something forceful and wise. It may be the hybrid length that gives them their naturalness. Lahiri seems to have waited on the unfolding, refusing either to expand the pieces into novellas or to fastidiously tighten the scope. The first story alone is more than 50 pages long.

The wisdom of the volume, though, is the way an abiding grief drifts through the stories rather than being captured and framed. Here, a contrast between this new work and Lahiri's novel is revealing. In what is arguably the key moment in "The Namesake," the main character, Gogol, learns about the tragedy that changed his father's life. Lahiri writes: "Gogol listens, stunned, his eyes fixed on his father's profile. Though there are only inches between them, for an instant his father is a stranger, a man who has kept a secret, has survived a tragedy, a man whose past he does not fully know. A man who is vulnerable, who has suffered in an inconceivable way ..." The shock here is generic; the descriptions force emotion through repetition, like hammer blows to the head of a screw.

In a story from the new volume called "A Choice of Accommodations," however, a character in a similar moment of recognition shifts through self-contradictions toward a hard-won (but still ambiguous) affirmation of his life -- the patience of the screw being turned. A despondent character, Amit, is attending a wedding when he realizes that his world is not going to change: his wife Megan, "his job, his life in New York, the girls. The most profound thing, having Maya and Monika, had already happened; nothing would be more life-altering than that. He wanted to change none of it, yet a part of him sometimes longed to return to the beginning of his relationship with Megan, if only for the pleasure of anticipating and experiencing those things again." The certainty of his choices -- he wanted to change none of it -- is charged nonetheless with longing and loss, as if to say, not even deep happiness can save us feeling stranded. We are beyond consolation and orientation.

This stranded sense is everywhere in "Unaccustomed Earth." In the title story (to my mind the book's best), a daughter's grief for her dead mother is complicated by her awkward relationship with her father. The parents had moved to America from India, and now Ruma (the daughter) has moved to Seattle from the Northeast, repeating their immigrant isolation. In Lahiri's portrait, Ruma's independence is only a half-liberation, though, for the separation makes it hard for her to assess her own life. The underlying theme of the story -- indeed all of Lahiri's work -- is that dislocation requires boldness and produces character but then leaves us tentative inside. Ruma is successful but bewildered, and she longs to talk to her father about the mother she misses. The 70-year-old father won't admit to his daughter that he's in a Platonic love affair back east. Part of the power of the story is the way the father makes the kind of peace with family breaches that his daughter cannot. He is happy, and his self-consciousness is winning. When he goes back east, Ruma's vulnerability finally ruptures into grief: "Where had her mother gone, when life persisted, when Ruma still needed her to explain so many things?" It is moving -- also surprising -- to think of the absent mother as an explainer of the world, rather than simply as emotional support. And how simple but taut is the recognition that grief is a lost question rather than a declaration of despair. In her gust of desolation, Lahiri's Ruma echoes the disconsolate father in "The Brothers Karamazov." Returning from the funeral of his son, he notices the boy's empty boots and cries out: "Illusha, old man, dear old man, where are your little feet?"

Other characters in "Unaccustomed Earth" are stranded in their unspoken passions as well. In "Nobody's Business," a student falls in love with a housemate and then hides a secret he learns about her boyfriend. More intricately, in "Hell-Heaven," a mother's relationship with a male family friend is closer than her relationship to her husband has ever been. Reflecting on this, the daughter feels a complicated blend of compassion and pain. This friendship at its height, she decides, offered "the only pure happiness [her mother] ever felt," but then, in a searing coda, she notes: "I don't think even my birth made her as happy."

The linked narratives in the second part hinge on an early "secret attraction" and something like a repression of grief. Childhood friends Hema and Kaushik find each other as adults in Rome, where an abrupt, unhesitating romance is shadowed with images of death.

It is strange to praise stories this sad. But "Unaccustomed Earth" takes advantage of the inner strains of a particular immigrant world to say something important about the modern: the geographical distance from Calcutta to Boston reflects the historical distance from communal priorities (extended families living together, grandparents naming grandchildren, etc.) to the individual freedoms that are the American calling card. The experience of those freedoms may be less liberating than their promise. Saul Bellow's Herzog shuddered at the "victories of untrammeled autonomy" -- shuddered because freedom asks too much of us. Lahiri's stranded characters know this all too well.

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