Sunday, October 12, 2008
Updated Book Review - Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri - I'm Underwhelmed
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 it's huge) 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.
At first, I was astounded by 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 living normal lives. Yes, they're Bengali-Americans, but so what? Lahiri writes about the universality of the human experience, not about experiences that are unique to Bengalis or Bengali-Americans.
I was impressed with Lahiri's spare and unadorned prose, with her understatement. But as time went on, my good feelings about this book were replaced by some not-so-good. For one, the surfeit of elementary grammar mistakes, such as using "one another" instead of "each other" when speaking of only two people. This would be okay in a memo or an email, but not coming from a Pulitzer Prize winning author. An Amazon reviewer has already pointed out the numerous grammar mistakes, so I won't do so here, but please know, they are they and in spades.
Another thing I came to dislike about the book was the flatness of the storytelling, the lack of vivid details. I'm not talking about cheap "hooks" or action scenes that are found in less-than-great detective stories or thrillers, neither of which I really like, but sensuous details - the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings of things - description that makes use of the five senses. It just wasn't there and I found Lahiri's prose pleasant, but flat. It didn't come to life vividly like Alice Munro's always does, or William Trevor's. Pulitzer or not, I don't think Lahiri has mastered her craft.
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? Didn't 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 part doesn't bother me nearly as much as the flat prose and the grammatical errors, neither of which should be tolerated in a Pulitzer winner.
If you're new to Lahiri's writing, Unaccustomed Earth probably isn't a good place to start. Although at first impressed, after letting the stories "settle" for a while, I came away from the book feeling very let down, very underwhelmed. No, the stories aren't bad, but they're not stellar, either, and definitely not up to the caliber of Alice Munro or William Trevor. Certainly not Chekhov. When it comes to the masters, Lahiri can't even come close.
Recommended: Only to her fans.