Unaccustomed Earth

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of eight stories, the epigraph of which has been drawn from the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be 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.

As with the majority of anthologies, these stories sink into dreary, repetitive monotony after a few pages of strong writing. They are not only held together by a singular theme, but resemble factory-line manufactured plots: successful second-generation American Bengali experiences conflict with first-gen parents and marries two-dimensional white character; is often haunted by a figure from the past. They are all the one and the same.

To be fair, Hell-Heaven is a genuinely good read and Nobody’s Business would have been bearable if it weren’t for the pretentious, casual references to Lattimore’s Homer and A Tale of Two Cities. Those tossed-about classics hold no real significance in relation to the plot, nor do they impress the reader. What is she trying to do? Prove that the majority of her characters aren’t flimsy cardboard? Put her M.A. in Literature to good use?

Part II of the anthology, aptly titled Hema and Kaushik after its two protagonists, is also worth reading.  I usually find second-person narration teeth grindingly annoying, but here it was a pleasant surprise.

I think Lahiri does have a gift for capturing the quiet anxieties of everyday people; however, I find myself wondering whether she will ever break free from her Bengali immigrant-experience mould. If The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies are of a similar timbre, I’ll be staying away from them for sure.

» This book was read as a part of my Summer Reading project

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15 thoughts on “Unaccustomed Earth

  1. Lahiri is a brilliant writer and Interpreter of Maladies is her best work. You should definitely read it because it will show you just how talented she really is. I have read her other two books and have enjoyed them both, but must concede that it is her debut book of short stories that remains her best work.

  2. I’ve only read The Namesake and it does have the same theme, although I loved it. I think I’ll be liking this one as well, despite the repetitiveness. I like immigrant stories because I can definitely relate, but I do know what you mean. Thanks for the honest review. I’m now even more curious how I’ll like this. :)

    1. I’m a second-gen myself, but I didn’t find myself relating to these stories. The first story was compelling enough, but after reading the same thing five, six times, I didn’t see how Lahiri could redeem herself. One collection is understandable, and perhaps a novel too, but if she can’t get out of the rut she’s in, I think she’s in trouble. The themes she explore have been portrayed by countless writers before her, and she doesn’t offer anything new in the way of style either.

      If I do choose to read more of her work, I think I’ll be reading The Namesake – at least in a novel, she’ll have enough time to develop depth in her characters. Sorry for those of you who like her stories, but I stand by what I said the first time. I found them incredibly monotonous.

  3. The Namesake wasn’t really that remarkable, but there were moments that I loved in it. But you know, I’m also partial to novels and don’t have as much patience with short stories, except for a few exceptions. One of the short story writers that I remember loving (years ago) was Grace Paley. In fact, I’ll try to revisit her this year just to see if I still feel the same about her writing.

  4. I’m not all that friendly with short stories either. Actually I just can’t stand them in large doses (i.e. anthologies).

    Maybe I’ll give Grace Paley a try :)

  5. I’m afraid this repetitive pattern (formulaic narrative) would not only bore me but leave me very confused with different characters. It sounds like I’ve had it with The Namesake.

  6. I think The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies were MUCH better than this new collection, which fell really flat for me. They do deal with the same kind of themes, but not in a cookie-cutter/ factor line fashion.

    1. Eva – I’m glad to hear that, and I think I will be reading The Namesake. I hope I didn’t come across the wrong way when I said that her stories were repetitive. I didn’t really mean that the theme itself was repetitive; just the way she explored it in Unaccustomed Earth. No more short stories for me, though, so I’ll still be staying away from Interpreter of Maladies :)

    1. Okay, so the general consensus seems to be that The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies are actually worth reading, and Unaccustomed Earth happens to be the anomaly.

      At times like this, I’m so grateful for the blogging community, b/c otherwise I probably would have forsaken Lahiri, hahah :)

  7. I enjoyed both of Lahiri’s collections, and do enjoy short stories generally. I’d recommend Gogol, Alice Munro or David Malouf as likely to covert doubters!

  8. […] To me, it seems to be the case that these sorts of books never stray far from the same generic themes: cultural divide within migrant families, usually between the first-generation children, and the second generation parents; identity crises, the hardships of their new homes (see previous thoughts on this here). […]

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