Jhumpa Lahiri- Unaccustomed Earth (2008)
This is a superb collection of beautifully crafted short stories about the Indian, predominantly Bengali, community in the United States. The social milieu is professional or academic and the stories often depict generational differences within families, where the younger generation are managing the different expectations of the two cultures and trying to forge a middle path on issues such as arranged marriage, educational achievements, use of alcohol. This is an aspirational milieu, where parents are keen for their children to succeed on American terms: in ‘A Choice of Accommodation’ we learn about Amit’s experience in an American prep school and in ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ Ruma’s father is keen for her to pursue her legal career, rather than sink into motherhood in the affluent suburbs. The stories are set in the States but the younger generation are characters who travel to England for work or a holiday; they are sophisticated and global. The stories show families over many years slowly adapting to America and women gaining in confidence: in ‘Hell and Heaven’ the mother takes a degree in Library Sciences in her fifties. In many instances the issues and how they are played out seem no different in this milieu than in an entirely white American milieu- any parents can be blind to their children’s alcohol abuse and many young people feel disorientated and betrayed when their middle aged parents meet new partners. Yet the results of children being uprooted across continents and the toll on education and friendships this entails hovers over the stories and seems to raise the importance of family, relationships within the family and conforming to familial expectations. Jhumpa Lahiri is a skilled short story teller who keeps our attention to the end, which is often unexpected and sometimes shocking. In ‘Hell and Heaven’ she cleverly uses cultural difference to express depth of emotion in a way which made me gasp.
The final three stories, called Hema and Kaushik, stand apart from the others, the first two dealing with the friendship between two families from the perspective of both young people and the final story with Hema and Kaushik meeting in Rome some years later. I realised on finishing the final story that I understood Hema’s decision better for having read the other stories first and immersing myself in the world of these young people and their skills at negotiating different cultures. The stories are ordered perfectly and their overall effect greater as a result. If you like short stories you will love this collection but don’t forget the tissues.
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