Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, July 14, 2008

An Unaccustomed Joy - Jhumpa Lahiri

When Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize winning volume of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies was published, I didn't read it. For one thing, I'd just read Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters, and while I absolutely loved both books, I was suffering from a surfeit of Indian fiction, at least at that time. But more than that, I gave The Interpreter of Maladies a pass because of all the hype. I've been let down by hype in the past. More than once. Surely the book couldn't be that good, I told myself. Surely Lahiri's prose wasn't that sparkling and fresh.

When Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri's third book of longer short stories was released, I'd "sort of" decided to give it a pass as well. I have plenty to read and didn't really need anything new. However, I was shopping the other day and there was the book, lying on a table right in front of me. I couldn't resist. But please keep in mind, I approached the book with a mind to dislike it.

Suffice to say, I was astounded at the beauty and grace in Lahiri's stories. No, the plots aren't much to speak of. Nothing earth shattering really happens. These are just normal people leading normal lives. Yes, they're Bengali-Americans, but so what? What's really important is that they could be Irish or Russian or German or English. Lahiri writes about the universality of the human experience, not about experiences that are unique to Bengalis or Bengali-Americans. I've never been to India, and I know few people of Indian descent, but I related totally to the characters in Unaccustomed Earth. I felt their pain, their loneliness, their striving for happiness. Lahiri, I learned, writes about the human heart, and the human heart, I think, is the same the world over. It doesn't matter if one's Bengali, South African, Dutch, or Chinese.

Lahiri's prose is spare and unadorned, but I was so impressed by its tremendous emotional depth and understanding, as well as Lahiri's unwavering eye for detail. All her characters came to life for me, even the minor ones.

Personally, I can't understand criticism of Lahiri because she writes about Bengali-Americans. Doesn't Alice Munro write about Canadians? Doesn't William Trevor write about the Irish? Did Chekhov write about Russians and Eudora Welty about people of the American South? No, I wouldn't be able to read Lahiri every day. But neither would I be able to read Alice Munro or Chekhov every day. That takes nothing away from their writing or their mastery.

Though I liked some of the stories better than others, I think this was just a matter of personal preference. I didn't find the stories uneven. I didn't think one was weaker than the others or one significantly stronger, another testament to Lahiri's power as a writer.

If I have any criticism of Lahiri at all, it's that she doesn't include more humor in her stories. Oh, I don't mean she should write comic stories. Far from it. But life, someone (author Mark Spencer) reminded me the other day, is both comic and tragic, and to exclude one in favor of the other is to diminish truth. I'd like to see a little, not a lot, just a little, understated humor in Lahiri's stories.

If you're new to Lahiri's writing, Unaccustomed Earth isn't a bad place to start. These are rich, deeply emotional stories, the stories of an emotionally mature writer, but they're also very, very restrained and understated. As for me, I'll be moving on to Lahiri's first novel, The Namesake, and this time, I won't approach it with anything but admiration and respect.


Note: After letting Lahiri's stories "digest" for a time, I had to revise my review of her book and downgrade my LCC score. In the long run, I was greatly underwhelmed.

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