Three of the stories in this collection are set in India and the other six in the United States; though the latter deal with the subject of cultural difference and integration, all of them depict loneliness and isolation, both within and outside of marriage. Sometimes loneliness within marriage is linked to cultural differences, typically where the man is working in the US and after an arranged marriage brings his bride from India, to remain at home, far from family with no place in American society. Sometimes a distancing is due to other, more general factors, for example the loss experienced by the young couple in ‘A Temporary Matter’. In ‘Mrs. Sen’s’ her isolation from society and confinement to the home and domestic sphere is shown alongside the enforced self reliance of the American single mother and the solitary little figure of Eliot, letting himself into his beach hut, alone with the ‘gray waves receding from the shore’. Here we see that loneliness is not just the prerogative of the Indian bride or long term bachelor: in ‘Sexy’ we see the misery of the American mistress and in ‘The Third and Final Continent’ the isolation of the very old.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s skill lies in her ability to inhabit the skin of a hugely varied range of characters and to describe events and situations using their narrative voice. A subtle shift in the narrative voice allows us, the reader, to see things from a different perspective: after Mr. Kapasi’s fantasies about the possibilities of romantic correspondence with Mrs. Das go from one dizzying height to the next, her indifference is conveyed by the fact that she ‘dropped (the note with his address) into the jumble of her bag’. The economy and succinctness shown in this sort of one line narrative shift sits alongside accumulations of detail, always used to good effect: in ‘Sexy’ the detailed description of Dev’s fiddling with the beauty counter apparatus as he hangs about waiting to chat up Miranda, draws us right into the scene of tension. In ‘Mrs. Sen’ the vast and varied assortment of vegetables surrounding her as she chops creates a vivid image of this character, in her element with food in the home and yet deeply challenged when required to engage with American society outside the home by driving herself to collect her favourite fish.
In places the writing becomes lyrically rhythmical, often in the daydream of an inner monologue: Sanjeev dreams momentarily of ‘prospective brides who could sing and sew and season lentils’ and also, as here , she uses alliteration and assonance to help us savour her choice of words. Her similes set off multiple associations: in ‘Sexy’ Miranda buys herself some clothes ‘she thought a mistress should have….a pair of black high heels with buckles smaller than a baby’s teeth’.
So what are we to think of the characters in the stories, their difficulties in marrying two cultures, of upholding traditions in a new world? One thing I love about these stories , but also the collection ‘Unaccustomed Earth’, is Jhumpa Lahiri’s lightness of touch- I feel she lays situations and choices before us and leaves us to interpret them as we like. Only yesterday I was disagreeing with a friend about the last story in ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ –she felt Hema was unhappy with her choice whereas I felt she had come to an accommodation. So I was pleased that the collection ended with ‘The Third and Final Continent’ where the couple, at first so different from one another and frozenly aloof, melt a little through sharing a joke and are able then to begin a lasting marriage. Do read this book and enjoy the peerless skill of Jhumpa Lahiri- I am in awe of her use of language and controlled narrative as well as entertained and moved by her characters, their desires, their acceptance, their stories.