quinta-feira, 12 de setembro de 2013

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. A review From John M. Formy-Duval

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
A review From John M. Formy-Duval

Alfred A Knopf, 2008

 Jhumpa Lahiri’s second collection of short stories finds her at the rising peak of her literary powers. These stories are longer (nearly novella length in some cases) than those in Interpreter of Maladies, her Pulitzer Prize collection of short stories. These new stories reveal a clear progression of her literary power from that first collection to her first novel, The Namesake, to now.

Five stories comprise the first part; three stories, featuring the same central characters comprise the second part. All eight stories, but the first five especially, are thematically related. They trace the lives of Bengalis who have moved to the United States. They experience a disconnection in their new lives. Many adults struggle to hold on to what they once knew, their circle of friends being largely other Bengali expatriates who are strangers in a strange land. The children, often born in the United States, are more connected to the States. The Bengali culture is slipping way with each succeeding generation. Parents consider India as "home," while the children only endure those repeated trips back there. "Home" for children is where they now live, a home with a new set of mores, language, dress, and relationships. There is a definite generational conflict. The children seldom read or speak Bengali. They serve as "cultural translators" for their parents in this new land, a phenomenon that is happening among any number of immigrant families in schools today.
The title story takes its theme from a brief quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Custom-House." "My children will have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth." The section in which this quote appears clearly demonstrates this theme of loss. Ruma's father, now widowed, has come to a Seattle suburb to visit. Ruma is married to an American, who is away for the week on a business trip. Her father has been traveling since his wife's death, always sending postcards to Ruma, but "never a sense of her father's presence in those places." Ruma is disengaged with her community, with life outside her home, and her father is keeping a secret from her. As her father forms a deep connection with his grandson through the planting of a garden, Ruma reconnects with her father, asking him to move in with her family. But, "He did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it."

This first story introduces a minor theme of these stories: the loss of one's mother and its impact on the lives of those who survive. In the first, the father is released from the responsibilities associated with family life. In "A Choice of Accommodations," Amit feels his parents have left him years ago. Now, as he and his American wife Megan return to his prep school for a reunion, he tells a complete stranger that their marriage has "disappeared." Just as they choose the place where they stay for the weekend, they make accommodations in their lives.
The final three stories in this remarkable collection may be the best trio of short stories I have ever read. In just 110 pages, Hema and Kaushik become inextricably linked as friends and sometimes lovers. They deserve a place in the annals of literary pairings along with Petrarch and Laura, Romeo and Juliet. One and one-half pages from the end, I closed the book, suddenly overcome with emotion, saying to myself, "I cannot finish this; I know where it is going." It went there, which was the perfect conclusion!

Unaccustomed Earth creates a beautifully literate journey that clearly illustrates the power of Jhumpa Lahiri's writing, her sense of community, her ability to create an imagined world as real, as joyous, as painful as Life. Every word fits. Nothing is wasted. Each story creates a unique, self-contained world. Yet, there is always the metaphor of disconnection, disengagement with life in America. And, despite the clear Bengali frame of reference on which each story is hung, these are universal themes: the loss of a parent or spouse, the sense of not fitting in, being ill at ease in a strange society.

There is another quote near the end of "The Custom-House" that seems to illuminate the feelings of those who have left home and must live in a different place:

"Soon, likewise, my old native town will loom upon me through the haze of memory, a mist brooding over and around it; as if it were no portion of the real earth, but an overgrown village in cloud-land, …. Henceforth, it ceases to be a reality of my life. I am a citizen of somewhere else."

Born in London, raised in Rhode Island, and now living in Brooklyn with her husband and son, Jhumpa Lahiri is a writer to be reckoned with. She has already won a Pulitzer, a PEN/Hemingway Award for her first collection of short stories. She gathered a New York Times Notable Book notice and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist for her first novel. She is a graduate of Barnard and Boston University where she earned the Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies.

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