In these heady times, with people undermining dictators and the like, sometimes I wonder if there is a place in the world for fiction. But, there’s always a place for good fiction.
Jhumpa Lahiri, you no doubt already know, can write, and she also apparently can blow my socks off. Unaccustomed Earth is ostensibly a collection of stories, which usually turns me right off, but in this case the collection works together as a coherent whole. Lahiri doesn’t do anything kitschy or annoying like repeating themes or characters. Instead, the first story echoes in the second, as though the characters could be there, but of course they aren’t, because they are in their own story. The unsettled, too-settled Ruma of the title story influences the way we read both the mother and the daughter in “Hell-Heaven,” the second story. Just a hint, nothing obvious, but coming to “Hell-Heaven” after reading “Unaccustomed Earth” layers significance on the characters that wouldn’t be there on their own. It continues throughout, each woman – her relationships and her self-worth – speaks to the women in the other stories.
Lahiri is phenomenal at delicately speaking the truth of her characters’ inner lives without thumping us over the head with it. Zadie Smith could learn a thing or two; I’m just sayin’. The final section of the book, “Hema and Kaushik” employs here points of view without seeming overly stylized, and the ending is completely unexpected but perfectly crafted. I was reading it while my boys were in tae kwon do, and their lesson ended when I was on the last page. I had to get up, close the book, and drive them all the way home, just so Lahiri could then finish breaking my heart.