Sunday, 2 August 2009

unaccustomed earth [jhumpa lahiri]

Lahiri's book is a collection of short stories. Having said which, it's a collection of short stories split into two sections, the second of which, Hema and Kaushik, is more of a novella, being three connected stories, dealing with two characters who have an affair in the third and final story.

The first part, untitled, consists of five stories which deal with the experiences of immigrant Bengalis in North America. One story takes place in Seattle, but the rest occur on the East Coast, describing the experience of three generations of Indian (or rather Bengali) families who have chosen to settle in the United States, whilst maintaining links with India, as well as London, something of a staging post for Bengali families on their way to the States. These stories are all 'well written', hinting at Chekhov or other writers I may once have read. They're unremittingly gloomy, as though suggesting that to be a Bengali immigrant is some kind of curse; that carrying the weight of a heavily family based tradition whilst trying to forge a North American identity is a pressured and perhaps doomed enterprise. The first character I found myself in any way relating to, the brother in Only Goodness, turns into an unreliable drunk who wrecks his sister's marriage to a deeply unsympathetic Brit.

These stories set the groundwork for the second part, which ends, to no great surprise, tragically. It was a relief to find that these last three stories were not only connected, but dealt with characters who seemed to have overcome their rigid, stultifying heritage, finding work as a photographer and a classics scholar, respectively. Hema and Kaushik come alive off the page, and there's no doubt that Lahiri has a talent for capturing voices and teasing out a narrative.

However, the great however of my day-to-day work, for all its measured, cut-glass effectiveness, it consistently felt to me as though in the end the writing was struggling to capture emotional truths which it pretends to be capturing effortlessly. Kaushik's hysterical reaction to his step-sisters, like his eventual fate, felt altogether too neat, too literary, to be true, and this was the case in most of the stories. Lahiri appears to be a writer reluctant to stray far from a world she knows inside out. Whilst the writing shows great precision in the depiction of a culture, and in the premise of the emotional conflicts it concocts, it felt to my mind as though there was something brittle, even a little shrill, in its final representation of those conflicts and their consequences, as though the coldness of the prose mitigated against a credible engagement with the truth of pain; or loss; or even love.

Is this even remotely fair? Because it's not to say that Lahiri is not a talented writer. Her skill is self-evident, seemingly effortless. My own subjectivity is caused by many factors, not least the permanent shadow of Bolano hovering over the short story form, or my current struggle to connect with most Anglo-Saxon prose. All the same, it seems to me that Unaccustomed Earth sets out its stall to capture the heartbreak of the commonplace; the fatality of the mundane, and we need to be convinced of the heartbreak or the fatality in order for this approach to work.

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