Book Review: Readings
With her second collection of short stories, Jhumpa Lahiri further establishes herself as a master of quiet despair
Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, Fri., April 4, 2008
Unaccustomed Earthby Jhumpa Lahiri
Knopf, 352 pp., $25
With her second collection of short stories, Jhumpa Lahiri further establishes herself as a master of quiet despair. The tales in Unaccustomed Earth, the title of which comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Custom-House," seep into the psyche quietly, unassumingly stealthy in their power to affect deeply. Each of the first five stories follows a family in some sort of crisis, even though they may not be conscious of it. The title story follows a quiet week shared between a stay-at-home mother, her 3-year-old son, and her widowed father, who takes a break from globe-trotting to visit his daughter in Seattle. During his stay, he establishes a garden for the family, falls in love with his grandson, and knowingly, quietly, breaks his daughter's heart. "Hell-Heaven" tells the story of a mother's forbidden, unrequited love affair through the eyes of her only child, a daughter whose knowledge grants her insight into the adult world of love and heartbreak and the unexpected solidarity between women. In "Only Goodness," a well-meaning older sister watches helplessly as her brother spirals into alcohol addiction, and the stakes prove to be higher than she'd bargained for. But it is the final triptych of stories, "Hema and Kaushik," that is the most devastating of the lot. Functioning as snapshots of two people's lives at various points in their emotional development, the stories depict a long, slow-growing love affair that is haunted by death. While it's not Romeo and Juliet, exactly, the relationship is doomed on so many levels that Lahiri seems almost sadistic in her efforts to keep the lovers apart. While some might assume that since Lahiri is a Bengali-American, as are many of her characters, this collection would be concerned with issues of Indian-American identity, this is not the case. Instead, Lahiri concerns herself with the vagaries of family, the damage done by love, and the little ways in which humans can redeem themselves among their familiars, although one is left wondering if redemption is ever possible within Lahiri's universe. While the writing here is masterful, as those who follow her have come to expect, this is not a joyful collection of stories. Rather, the tone is gray-hued, like the Seattle skies that open the book and the post-tsunami Indian Ocean that closes it.