Unaccustomed Earth By Jhumpa Lahiri
It is always a pleasure to open a box and find the latest book from a favourite author. It was no exception with the new book, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of two earlier books, including the Interpreter of Maladies, published in 2000, the winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This collection of short stories is brilliant in every way, chronicling the lives of Indian immigrants to the United States with sensitivity and insight. The writing is great and the stories satisfying in every way. Her first novel The Namesake was published in 2003 and has recently been made into a film. When Unaccustomed Earth was published this spring it immediately jumped to number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
Unaccustomed Earth is actually several short stories, linked together to read as a novel. In the title, taken from a Nathaniel Hawthorne quote “My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth,” Lahiri refers to the immigrant experience, which was her own.
In the opening story, it is Ruma who thinks of her mother, who came to the United States, “moving to a foreign place for the sake of marriage, tending children and a household”, as she awaits the arrival of her father. Ruma’s mother recently died and her father is travelling, with a stop along the way to visit Ruma and her family. Ruma has moved to the west coast, where her husband has come to work, and her father sees her living the same life as his late wife “now all alone in a new place, overwhelmed, without friends, caring for a young child… he had always assumed that Ruma’s life would have been different”, but he regretfully sees it as her mother’s was.
It is the trio of linked stories concluding this book that are the most wonderful – the novel inside this collection of stories. Hema and Kaushik meet as children when their parents are part of the same Bengali community when they first immigrate to the United States. They grow up and meet again as adults, both having spent the intervening years establishing careers and assimilating into the mainstream of American society. Both Hema and Kaushik have spent time in India wile they were growing up, but they both believe they have left the past behind. Lahiri has created characters that come to life for the reader, and we are desperate to know what will become of them, and wish so much for their happiness.
I rushed through this book to discover what would happen to the people – yes, I know they are not real. It is the magic that a truly great writer of fiction can achieve when her readers come to the stunning conclusion of a book such as this - and want to read it all over again.