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52 Books #6: Unaccustomed Earth

February 17, 2011

I’m a big fan of the ‘long short story’ and am always on the lookout for linked short story sequences which, for various reasons, I find a very satisfying and interesting way to structure a longer piece. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth (Bloomsbury) contains both. The first part contains five standalone stories, ranging from twenty to sixty pages; the latter part, ‘Hema and Kaushik’, is three linked stories built around the relationship between the titular characters. Lahiri’s subject matter is the lives of Indian expatriates, living in London, Thailand and (most commonly here) the US (Massachusetts, Seattle and Maine all feature).

More particularly, she writes about the tensions related to being a immigrant: the lures and traps of heritage, the contingency of the word ‘home’. These matters are tackled elliptically and obliquely, as is the strong theme throughout of grief and depression: these are characters who have survived terrible situations or weathered bereavements, but are generally unable to express their feelings about what they’ve been through: by allowing the characters’ actions and responses to illuminate the pain each feels, Lahiri demonstrates an affecting respect of the characters who populate these lyrical, moving stories.

I read these stories in a glut, feeling the awful dilemma that attends a great short story collection: you want to savour each story, let it sink in and have its effect, yet you also want to move swiftly from one to the next, devouring them, their great pleasures one after the other. Like Alice Munro – whose stories are as deceptively spacious as Lahiri’s, the measured tone and the authorial voice which looks over their protagonists’ shoulders but never ironises the characters letting horrific events unfold with great stateliness and control – these are stories which can easily be summarised in almost banal descriptions (girl can’t bring herself to ask her widowed father to live in her house; college reunion exposes the cracks in a relationship) but in whose telling, bereft of stylistic fireworks or tricksiness, lies their colossal impact. ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ and ‘Only Goodness’ (a story which includes a child named Neel Mukherjee, which I found amusing) have endings which might be called faintly elegiac, showing that very quietly and subtly their protagonists have undergone seismic shifts in outlook; only in the concluding ‘Going Ashore’ does Lahiri permit herself a full-on tragic ending, but this comes at the end of the story-trilogy ‘Hema and Kaushik’ which is so crisscrossed with mistakes and misunderstandings that an ending which – spoilers! – makes use of the Thai tsunami of 2004 as a kind of anti-deus ex machina seems overshadowed by the much smaller tragedies that have beset its characters all their lives.

It’s probably silly to try and pick a ‘favourite’ here, but nonetheless: the various relationship breakdowns of ‘Nobody’s Business’ – in which a college student accidentally intercepts phonecalls which expose the deceptions underpinning his beloved housemate’s relationship – ends with a setpiece built around an astounding one-two of poetic justice. ‘Year’s End’ is so sad and wicked I wanted to frame it: Kaushik returns to the family home where his mother died and where his father has installed a much younger new wife and her two young daughters: all through the story the reader waits dry-mouthed for the repression and unspoken dismay packed into this story to erupt, and it does, in a stunning denouement which, like several of her endings, Lahiri prolongs and elaborates, ensuring that ‘Year’s End’ ends not on a violent note but on a sad sustained one. Unaccustomed Earth contains some of the very best stories I’ve read in a long time: precise, expansive, universal, exquisite.

Other reading in Week #6:

George Gissing New Grub Street (Penguin Classics)

Rob Chapman Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head (Faber)

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