Thursday, 18 June 2009

Jhumpa Lahiri - Unaccustomed Earth (Bloomsbury 2008)

Jhumpa Lahiri's subjects are niche, quietly dysfunctional Bengali American families in Massachussets falling apart either through marital ennui or cultural identity issues, but the pain and emotion and expanse of delicate subtlety steer her characters to the core of the human condition. The deservedly Pulitzer-award winning debut short story collection, 'The Interpreter of Maladies' was a beautiful account of the above, but at the same time, so much more. Her writing is clear and concise, yet descriptive about the small movements, the lingering stares, the paths of loneliness and solitude and the companionships of families. 'The Namesake' was a bigger project, taking the same themes and translating them to a broad pallette, a full novel that spanned England, India and America, made into a superb film by safe pair of hands, Mira Nair. Now, 'Unaccustomed Earth', a new short story collection. It spans 5 stories and 1 novella in 3 movements, each one beautiful and delicate and full of nuance and quiet implosions. In 'Unaccustomed Earth' the first story concerns a grieving father and daughter as they dance around the silence of their stoic relationship, as he bonds with his new grandson and she watches him slowly move on with his life, unable to do so with her own, their secrets building up fortresses around them. In 'Only Goodness' a sister mothers and sisters and befriends her younger brother, building their secrets into a wall against their parents, one that results in his battles with self and identity and alcoholism while she tries to escape their quiet life in Boston's suburbs, both burdened by a simple secret that captures them both. In 'Nobody's Business' a man pines for his roommate as she conducts a clandestine affair with a mysterious man, full of secrets, trying to mind his own business as the affair unravels spectacularly and involves him. The novella, 'Hema and Kaushik' spans three significant times in the lives of star-crossed friends/lovers Hema and Kaushik as they move from awkward teenage crushes to death and disappointment to an eventual rekindling of their burdgeoning romance in Italy 20 years later. Each story deals with small secrets and big secrets and how they become anchors around necks, about how everyday events create stigmas that change lives, about whispers and lies. It's a beautiful piece of work, each story chillingly emotive (chilling in their power and nuance), everyday objects and events are described in new ways. The affairs with married man, the slow burn of mixed race relationships, secrets, learning to move on after losing a loved one or the relationships between parents and their adult children- are all themes that build into a fine piece of work, a work of a true master of their craft.

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