Books: Interpreter of families

  • Article by: DIANA POSTLETHWAITE , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2008 - 6:00 PM

FICTION: Something new is happening in Jhumpa Lahiri's familiar landscape of exiled Indian immigrants: A third generation is being born.

If you've read Jhumpa Lahiri's previous books (Pulitzer Prize-winning "Interpreter of Maladies," movie-adapted "The Namesake"), all I need tell you is that "Unaccustomed Earth" is her best yet. If you haven't, my job is to persuade you to sprint to your nearest bookstore.

To call Lahiri's work "short stories" is to call Wordsworth's "Tintern Abby" a "poem." True but inadequate. Like Wordsworth, Lahiri has an ear exquisitely attuned to cadenced language and a haunting awareness of the way a human lifespan is built upon layers of time, loss, and the redemptive epiphanies of memory and art.

When it comes to literary soulmates, she has even more in common with Anton Chekhov and Alice Munro -- pitch-perfect short-story wizards who can conjure a novel's worth of plot and character, psychological and moral complexities, within a few pages.

The eight stories of "Unaccustomed Earth" are planted in familiar Lahiri territory: Indian immigrants to the Boston area, living traditionally in arranged marriages and returning annually to Calcutta or Bombay to visit extended family members; prosperous professors and engineers with houses in Cambridge or Marblehead yet forever exiles, outside American culture. As in Lahiri's previous fiction, these Indian parents are often in conflict with their American-born children, who marry for love, forget their Bengali and are torn between chafing at and cherishing their parents' customs.

But there's something new shaping Lahiri's landscape in this book: the passing away of that first generation is followed by the birth of a third. Her title is drawn from a quintessentially New England source, Nathaniel Hawthorne's essay "The Custom House": "Human nature will [only] ... flourish," Lahiri quotes Hawthorne, if our children "have ... other birthplaces" and "strike their roots into unaccustomed earth." Those familiar with Lahiri's previous works should take note: The operative metaphor here is not "uprooting," but the "nourishment" to be found in newly turned soil.

"Unaccustomed Earth," the first story, takes this metaphor literally: An Indian-American widower comes to visit his daughter, Ruma (lawyer-turned-pregnant-stay-at-home-mom), and her 3-year-old son, Akash, isolated and adrift in their new house in Seattle. He plants a garden for them that contains both his dead wife's favorite hydrangeas and (thanks to little Akash's unconventional notion of "seeds") a postcard that reveals to Ruma the love affair her father has kept hidden.

In more than one of these stories, mothers die, fathers move on to new relationships, and adult children feel bereft. "Hema and Kaushik," the stunning trio of interconnected stories that completes the collection, is also suffused with grief for a dead mother and anger at a remarried father. And it, too, ends with a pregnancy, "the cells ... gathering and shaping themselves" in a second-generation Indian daughter who makes a dramatic choice to plant her life in America.

The heart of this beautifully written trilogy is a grand love story, which unfolds with the swoony, earthshaking intensity of a "Titanic" or an "English Patient." "He uttered her name, the hot word filling her ear." (It's a tragedy Anthony Minghella won't be here to make the movie version.)

Elsewhere in her book, Lahiri crafts a blend of sorrow, wit -- and, always, rueful wisdom -- about the fallible human condition. In "A Choice of Accommodations," a small burn in a wife's dress becomes a metaphor for an unraveling marriage (the "small empty patch, charred around the edges ... looked unsightly, like the bright flesh exposed when a scab is forcibly lifted away." In "Nobody's Business," a glamour girl disrupts the timid routines of a nerdy grad student. The heroine of "Only Goodness" makes a swift and sorrowful choice to cast an alcoholic brother out of her life after he endangers the life of her infant son.

"No country is my motherland," Lahiri said in a 2001 interview after "Interpreter of Maladies" was published. "I always find myself in exile in whichever country I travel to; that's why I was tempted to write something about those living their lives in exile."

Seven years later, in "Unaccustomed Earth," the ache of exile remains; but parenthood also plants sustaining roots in the newly turned soil of an adopted motherland.

Diana Postlethwaite, a professor of English at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., frequently reviews contemporary fiction.

  • UNACCUSTOMED EARTH

    By: Jhumpa Lahiri.

    Publisher: Knopf, 352 pages, $25.

    Review: Beautifully crafted short stories of exile, longing and belonging that conjure up a novel's worth of plot, character and moral complexity.

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