Unaccustomed Earth, a book of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, has been on my reading list for a while. I read The Namesake, one of Lahiri’s previous books, five or six years ago and really enjoyed it. While Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of enjoyable stories, they feel more coarsely developed than her earlier novel.
Lahiri delivers to us a group of stories about second-generation Indian immigrants. They are their coming-of-age stories; some are somewhat surprising, since it takes some of the characters forty years to reach a point of true maturity. I think Lahiri has it right when she casts her population in that category of delayed social milestones — the pressure to be successful academically and to have a good career takes precedent above love and creating a family for a lot of these people. Their parents want them to do both, but the push to be wunderkinds causes a lot of social immaturity. Add to that the cultural pressure to stay within the ethnic group with all romantic affairs, and it’s no wonder the children of Indian immigrants are often seen in academia without a spouse or children until they are well into their thirties (or even early forties).
My favorite story in this book, also called “Unaccustomed Earth”, is about a Bengali woman who is married to a white man, has a son with him and another child on the way. Her father, with whom she trades the narrative voice, is a widower living on the other side of the United States. He has taken to travelling, and has a secret travel partner who is also Indian. His daughter, while starting her own family, feels the pull to follow Indian tradition and ask her father to stay with them. I felt that the interplay between her wants and her perception of what society expects of her were interesting, as was what her father actually wanted. I thought the end of the story, especially, was very good.
I also liked the second half of the book, composed of three short stories, which is about two families and their only children — one boy, one girl — and their journeys through growing up. The first, “Once In a Lifetime”, is written in the second person by the girl, Hema, to the boy, Kaushik. She talks about the re-emigration of Kaushik’s family and the interaction the two families had when hers hosted his when they were first back in the country. The second, “Year’s End”, is from him to her, about his life during college. The last, “Going Ashore”, is their stories to each other when the get reacquainted. The series is pretty good, and would have been interesting as a book on its own.
My main issue with Unaccustomed Earth is with Lahiri’s narrative. She feels as though each character’s inner workings needs to be written down for the reader to read. Why can’t their actions speak toward their feelings? Give the reader some work to do. We like it. That’s why we read. The book could have been shorter that way, too, or it could have included more stories. As they stand, the stories feel bloated. The only ones where this structure makes sense is in the second half of the book, where two characters are basically writing to one another. For the other stories, it feels heavy-handed and coarse.
I loved the stories in Unaccustomed Earth. I like Lahiri. I just wish that her editor had taken the time to tell her to be a little more subtle with her narrative.