Saturday, December 7, 2013

Book Review: Unaccustomed Earth

Before I dive head-first into my book review, please allow me to ramble for a bit. I'm going to be relying on my drafts folder to keep my blog afloat for the next few weeks. We've had a sudden surge of guests recently. We had family visiting from Malaysia last month, family who flew down from the US last weekend, my parents this weekend, one of my dental school buddies the week after that, my sister and her husband immediately after and one of my close friends and her family during the first week of January. I love having guests over and playing hostess so I've been in a perpetually exuberant mood! Needless to say, I won't be able to devote much time to my blog although I will be baking a fruitcake for Christmas (planning to make it a tradition henceforth) and right now I have an assortment of dry fruits soaking in a jar of rum for the past 2 weeks. I'm excited about that because neither have I baked a fruitcake before nor have I ever used alcohol in any of my cooking/baking ventures! So, stay tuned for that

A few weeks ago, a friend loaned me this book with a convincing recommendation. I have to confess that I haven't read that many books penned by authors of Indian origin (with the exception of Kiran Desai & Chetan Bhagat) so I was game to check it out.

From the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, comes Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories. Having not been familiar with Jhumpa Lahiri's literary works before, this book marked a first for me as a reader. The Namesake was made into a major motion picture by Mira Nair and although I hadn't read the book, I did watch the movie. I found the movie's portrayal of the Bengali culture, immigrant struggles, cultural assimilation, upheaval, identity crisis and fragility of relationships insightful and thought-provoking.

Unaccustomed Earth made number one on the New York Times Book Review list of "100 Best Books of 2008". It also won the 2008 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. The book is divided into two parts. Part One has five short stories and Part Two is a novella comprising of three chapters. The common aspects that surge through the book include stories revolving round expatriate Bengalis and their first-generation American born children, cultural conflicts and the exploration of complexities in relationships.

Here is a brief summary on each of the short stories,

Unaccustomed Earth, the title story, is the poignant tale of three generations. It focuses mainly on a father and daughter dealing with loss, coming to terms with life and rediscovering their relationship. Just two pages into this story and I was hooked. It is probably my favourite story out of the lot.

Hell-Heaven is a beautifully penned story told from a daughter's perspective about her life growing up with her parents with particular emphasis on her mother's powerful infatuation with a man outside her marriage and her subsequent heartbreak. It explores changing human traits and basic human emotions such as jealousy, loneliness and desperation. I found this story interesting, inspiring and touching.

A Choice of Accommodations is one of the mediocre stories in the book although it has plenty of intellect and depth. The premise of the story revolves round a middle-aged Bengali man attending the wedding of an old crush accompanied by his American wife of eight years. The couple hopes to turn the wedding into an excuse for a romantic weekend away from the kids. The event translates into a journey in introspection through which he reflects on his life and marriage.

Only Goodness, another gem in the book probes the complicated relationship between a brother and older sister, marred by years of guilt and inferiority complex only to be compounded by the brother's self-destructive alcohol addiction. It showcases the gravity of making responsible choices in life and the harsh lessons learned from failing to abide by it.

Nobody's Business is set apart from the rest in that it doesn't involve familial relationships but rather focuses on the relationship between two housemates. It explores the multiculturalism that represents America and highlights the cultural clashes between people of different races. This story was also one that I thought was below par with the rest. 

Hema and Kaushik chronicles the lives of Hema and Kaushik right from the point where they first meet as teenagers until they get reacquainted again much later in life. What I liked in particular about this story is that the first chapter is written from Hema's perspective, the second from Kaushik's and the final chapter from a third person's perspective. The difference in narration adds an interesting element to the storytelling. The characters are well-defined and the way the story unfolds is intriguing and engaging. 

My thoughts....
Jhumpa Lahriri's prose is simple, elegant and unpretentious. It is more about substance than style which to me is the mark of a good writer. She uses subtlety, restraint and a natural flair for perceiving people's innermost thoughts to her strength. There are several seemingly simple sentences that are fortified with a deeper meaning that will compel you to read again. She offers the readers an insight into her Bengali culture which comes across in all the stories. Although the physical description of her characters is limited, she makes them come to life, infusing them with personality. What is most endearing about her characters is their obvious imperfections. We frequently see glimpses of vulnerability, selfishness, cowardice and deceit. You overcome any inkling to judge her characters because at some point in your life, you probably would have identified with at least one of those emotions. So in that way, her writing does have the ability to make you reflect on your own life and choices. She connects on an emotional level with the readers talking about subjects that each and every one of us can relate to - love, friendship, marriage, filial duty, migration, divorce, sickness and death. The stories have that perennial quality about them which is not what you would expect from a short story genre. If I were being pedantic, I would say that I was saddened by the lack of strong female characters in the stories. I also found the underlying bleak tone of dissatisfaction-despite-affluence among the Bengali immigrants trite and the recurring trend of Bengali-White interrelationships monotonous as the book progressed. But having said that, the positives outshine the negatives enough to make me want to familiarize myself with more of this gifted writer's work. I'm looking forward to reading The Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake and her most recent work, The Lowland.

My rating for this book is

Have you read this book? If yes, what did you think about it? I would love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment to let me know....


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