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.
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.
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:
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.