Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth

Looking over the reviews of Jhumpa Lahiri’s second collection of short fiction, Unaccustomed Earth, reveals at least one similar criticism seems to pop up again and again: her stories are all just derivatives of one another. While I enjoyed both this volume and Interpreter of Maladies greatly, I find that the critique is an apt one. Yet focusing on merely one aspect of Lahiri’s fiction misses her ability to effectively narrate a story with recognizable characters.

Rather than recap the stories as so many reviews do, I want to offer a slightly more personal take on this collection. I’m not sure I would have made the connection between Alcoholics Anonymous and Unaccustomed Earth wit
hout the inclusion of ‘Only Goodness,’ a story detailing the sibling estrangement that surrounds the addiction of the brother. The unifying principle of AA is that while everyone has a different story, they all have the same story. In other words, a member will hear his own story in the stories of other members, again and again and again.

I found myself reading a piece of my own story as I moved through the pieces of the collection. I am not a
woman with a young child who must debate whether to invite her widowed father to move in with her family, but I felt her pain as I read. I also never fell in love with a roommate from another culture who had a possessive and abusive boyfriend who I crossed paths with, but I sensed the truth in the story just as strongly as if it had been my own.

Likewise, I’ve never been arrested or imprisoned. I’ve never been turned away from my parent’s home, nor have I ever had to sleep on the street. Not only have my children never been removed from my home, I don’t even have children. Yet when I hear people tell these stories, I see myself in them. I feel myself in them. They are true to me, not because they actually happened, but because they feel true.

This is called verisimilitude in fiction, and Unaccustomed Earth is filled with it in spades. I don’t have anything in common with any of these narrators, yet I feel like I have everything in common with all of them.

So Lahiri’s short fiction is a bit repetitive when it comes to plot. And she honestly hasn’t given the best interviews on her work, so a certain amount of mocking might be appropriate. But her stories are so rich with feeling and truth that it would be a shame for you to miss out on them.

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