Monday, February 24, 2014

Review: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Rating: 5 stars
Source: Purchased
Buy the Book: Amazon
Summary"Canada is proud to welcome this bestselling, Pulitzer Prize—winning author with eight dazzling stories that take us from Cambridge and Seattle to India and Thailand as they explore the secrets at the heart of family life. 

In the stunning title story, Ruma, a young mother in a new city, is visited by her father who carefully tends her garden–where she later unearths evidence of a love affair he is keeping to himself. In “A Choice of Accommodations,” a couple’s romantic getaway weekend takes a dark turn at a party that lasts deep into the night. In “Only Goodness,” a woman eager to give her younger brother the perfect childhood she never had is overwhelmed by guilt, anguish and anger when his alcoholism threatens her family. And in “Hema and Kaushik,” a trio of linked stories–a luminous, intensely compelling elegy of life, death, love and fate–we follow the lives of a girl and boy who, one fateful winter, share a house in Massachusetts. They travel from innocence to experience on separate, sometimes painful paths, until destiny brings them together again years later in Rome. 

Unaccustomed Earth is rich with the author’s signature gifts: exquisite prose, emotional wisdom and subtle renderings of the most intricate workings of the heart and mind. It is the work of a writer at the peak of her powers."

Review:  This compilation of short stories begins with the following quote by Nathaniel Hawthorne:
Human nature will not flurish any more than a potato, if it is planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn out soil.  My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

The book then tells the stories of those who have been given roots and wings made from different materials, and shows what they make of them.  

That's the short answer, anyway.  The long answer is much more difficult. 

I cannot say how forcefully this book pounded my mind and heart.  You'll just have to take my word for it: it did.  Each story stripped me bare and left me breathless with Lahiri's ability to reveal the human soul.  It's been said that the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.  If you agree with that sentiment, you need to read this book.

Unaccustomed Earth is powerful collection of stories.  This book goes for subtlety and elegance rather than noise and fury .  It told relatable stories of real people - not of quirky but loveable heroes or of characters in extraordinary circumstances, but of just regular people that have a hard time forgiving, or deal with feelings of guilt, or struggle with the tension between freedom and duty, or find themselves one day to be utter strangers to family members they've known their whole lives.  They are stories of flawed people dealing with other flawed people, but who still manage to love, live, and breathe in this imperfect world.  

Nearly every protagonist in these stories has geographically different roots and wings, as they are the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves.  I've read a number of books that address the issues dealt with by the people in these situations: questions of identity, complicated struggles to maintain balance between different and sometimes conflicting cultural expectations, and so on.  My family has lived in the United States for generations, so I cannot directly relate to these struggles on an international level, but I still identify with them in smaller ways.  I have lived in four states in the US for extended periods of time, and spent 18 months in Europe in my early twenties.  Looking back, it is clear to me that I changed immensely in each place, precisely because of the place in which I lived.  

When my husband and I were first married we were debating whether to move to Massachusetts or Indiana or Georgia.  Each place had its merits, but Indiana ultimately won.  When we first arrived I was completely lost, having never previously spent much time in the Midwestern part of the US.  The freezing rain, the farmer's market, the cornfields, the Golden Dome, the tornado warnings, Shipshewana... all of it, though foreign at first, became recognizable over time.  It then became familiar, then endearing.  Finally, it became home.  (I should probably admit that the freezing rain never endeared itself to me, but I do at least have some great freezing-rain-stories.)  Those years have left an imprint on my heart and have changed the way I see the world.  Now, I carry a part of Indiana with me wherever I go.

I still would have changed in Massachusetts or Georgia, but I would have changed in different ways.  I would be a different version of myself right now.  

Here's the kicker, though.  Not only did Indiana change me, but every single person I interacted with changed me as well.  More broadly, every person I've ever met has left their mark.  It's happened to you as well as to me.  It's like we're all made of wood and holding machetes, nicking and carving at each other as we stagger and bang through life, creating totems ornate, grotesque, and uniquely beautiful.  

I feel myself getting progressively existential.  It's a bit like falling into the rabbit's hole, contemplating how all the little decisions in your life led to the exact version of yourself that you are at the present moment.  But that's just what this book does.  It tells stories that make you look more closely at yourself, and wonder at what precisely has made you who you are.  It reveals the conflict within yourself in all its jealousy and selfishness and ugliness, and yet still leaves you with the courage you need to face each new day.  

William Faulkner believed that man would not merely endure: he would prevail.  Lahiri seems to believe that humankind can prevail, but urges each of us to deliberately choose to prevail.  We are capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.  Life will be dirty and disappointing and discouraging.  It can also be glorious.  Let it be so.

I absolutely recommend this book to everyone.

(Even you, Liz.)


  1. Ha! :)

    I need to give it another go after having read your beautiful review. Indiana changed me, too. For the better. And I'm way better for knowing you!


    1. HUG RETURNED!! Even if you still think this book is blah, I will still love you.


Hi! Thanks for your comment! I am currently being hit by a large amount of spam, so I've upped my comment moderating settings for the time being. I will revert back to more comment friendly settings once the spammers go back to the gutters from whence they came.