Bloomsbury, Paperback, 352pp.,ISBN 978-0747596592, Price: £7.99
Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second collection of stories, follows the award-winning success of her novel The Namesake with more decoration, having recently scooped the 2009 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best Book. As such it needs to be taken as a representative of what can be achieved with a certain sort of literary fiction. This sort is what Zadie Smith calls “lyrical realism,” in her recent essay ‘Two Paths For The Novel,’ which she defines against more avant-garde approaches.
One of the most immediately noticeable things about this book is how much Lahrir likes to signpost her metaphors. The obsessive gardening of Ruma’s father in the title story that begins the collection comes to stand for all kinds of disconnection and rootlessness in a new culture, by way of an epigraph from Nathaniel Hawthorne that provides the volume’s title. Likewise, in ‘A Choice Of Accommodations’ Amit’s responsibility to “stand by [Megan’s] side,” at the wedding of his high school infatuation Pam, for the ostensibly practical reason that one side of Megan’s dress is split, is too explicit a metaphor. The relaxation of this “duty”, as he and Megan get different kinds of drunk and drift apart, is flagged up by Lahiri as being the expression, in this material world where it’s difficult to distinguish between domestic items and actions, of the breakdown of their relationship. Despite being obvious, it is still memorable and sad. Lahiri’s craft lies in the recognition that small objects and actions accrue too much significance in personal relationships , but she is equally limited by these conventional strictures of lyrical realism.
The detail of Megan’s split dress is important enough to become something like a symbol, but one that is over-explained. Lahiri’s voices also have in common a habit of excessive volubility, a recurring tic which can be isolated at sentence level. When Kaushik is describing the final months of his mother’s life in ‘Year’s End,’ he recalls her joining him in his dark room, saying “it must be something like this.” It is clear enough that her ‘it’ refers to the death we know is near, but it is then followed by Kaushik explaining that “I understood without her saying so that she was imagining what it might be like to be dead,” in case we didn’t get it.
After reading a couple of these stories it becomes habitual to assume that everything happens for a reason, like the split in Megan’s dress, and that the connection between reason and thing will be explained sooner or later. During his flight from medical school, having walked all night, Amit stops into a bakery, has “hot tea and coconut bread” and watches “a group of Chinese women sitting at a round table at the back, sorting through a mountain of spinach.” The slightly mysterious nature of this part might be intended to reflect Amit’s position outside of professional society at this point. Perhaps such enjoyably wayward things as tea and coconut bread at dawn can’t be allowed in the main part of a book that is trying to get across the impossibility of actually escaping from social constrictions in any meaningful way. Perhaps it would be contradictory of Lahiri to allow herself too many such indulgences.
This odd vignette, though effective, is not of a kind with her basically realist approach, where detail is part of the story’s material fabric and contributes something, even if it’s just the “random detail [that] confers the authenticity of the real”(Zadie Smith). When Unaccustomed Earth is really good it is because realism has little to do with the prose at sentence level, which most of the time is as transparent and functional as it sets out to be. Instead, what Lahiri does best is making Unaccustomed Earth work as a collection of stories, connected in more skilful and intimate ways than just the overly coincidental reappearances of Hema and Kaushik in one another’s lives that make up the book’s second part and conclusion. Lahiri’s precision in handling what at first appear to be conventional narrative structures allows her to counterpoint various ways of looking at the same few types of relationships and cultural differences.
Familiar variations on the Bengali’s disconnected experience in the States keep being relayed, with differences of perspective and tone. Hema’s eventual capitulation to arranged marriage in ‘Going Ashore’ saves her from being caught, along with Kaushik, by the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. This is the final note of Unaccustomed Earth, a satisfyingly unsorted double bind: we’re fairly sure she’s made the wrong decision, in terms of affirming a unique identity distinct from her culture, by allowing her background to rule her heart, but the choice saves her life. That it is allowed to do so is the domain of the realist writer, who can deal casually in death and salvation in this way.
And nor does Hema’s eventual choice seem exactly a regression, though it does restrict her uniqueness in the ways we might expect. This is because Hema’s significant, culminative choice is coloured by our already having encountered, in ‘Year’s End’, the arranged marriage from the perspective of the ageing lonely male. Kaushik’s father justifies his decision in pragmatic terms of companionship and loneliness. In the admission that “I was tired…tired of coming home to an empty house every night,” his honesty about his motivations here, or rather Lahiri’s naturalistic presentation of them, pre-empts any stock reaction against the arranged marriage on the reader’s part. It is in this kind of intelligent, modulated response to problems of cultural difference that Unaccustomed Earth succeeds within the bounds of its ambition, but it is not allowed to exceed them.