I know, someone who works as an editor in publishing shouldn’t comment on another publisher’s writers. But I took a private call on this–how likely is it that I’ll make a pitch for Jhumpa Lahiri? Answer: I don’t think she’ll shift from Picador for a while–and figured I could consider myself free to write about her latest book, Unaccustomed Earth.
I didn’t buy Unaccustomed Earth right off: instead, I read the reviews, all of which seemed to stress the point that Lahiri had returned to the rich but narrow and circumscribed world of Bengali immigrants, the world she’s explored before in Interpreter of Maladies and in The Namesake.
Then I bought the book, and spent a few weeks with her stories. Don’t expect literary criticism in this post; I’m not going to attempt a review when there are so many available on the Net. But reading and living with these stories made me question the validity of those reviews–when reviewers spoke of her mining the comfortable and small world of Bengali immigrants, did they know what they were talking about? Because in this book, Lahiri seems to have given herself permission to go beyond the relatively safe, if riddled with faultlines, terrain she charted in Interpreters.
Let’s take this objectively. Look at the subjects she’s tackling in Unaccustomed Earth. There’s hidden alcoholism that rips a family apart, several times over. There’s an abortive suicide, attempted by a woman whom you would never have suspected of being suicidal. There’s desperate, married sex, applied like a Band-Aid across wounds too deep for a Band-Aid. There are affairs, betrayals, a sequence where a key character can only deal with pain by cutting herself. This is a deeply riven, often violent, often terrifying world that Lahiri’s opened her writing and herself up to. And this is the genteel, limited world of the reviewers’s imaginations? That’s like saying Raymond Carver was a quiet, restrained writer because most of his characters come from Middle America.
This collection of stories terrified and entranced me in a way that more obviously grandly themed books by Indian writers have not, because Lahiri’s craft is so deceptive, and so effective. Very, very few writers have parsed and analysed the workings of the Indian family as well as she has: she captures all of its warped toxicity, its suffocating shibboleths. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by the fact that most of her protagonists come from the same, middle class, relatively prosperous immigrants’ background–that is just the background. There’s more quiet violence and more understanding of fractured relationships in her stories than there is in the more dramatic Indian novels. To read her as just a chronicler of the mundane, sheltered lives of a certain class of American immigrants would be a gross misreading–something like interpreting Oedipus Rex as an unpleasant family drama played out by wealthy Greeks.
What was interesting for me about Unaccustomed Earth was the sense that Lahiri has given herself permission, unshackled herself from the unspoken protective responsibilities that an Indian woman writer of her class might be expected to bear. She has a searing, unforgiving eye for the truth, and this collection bears out not just her talent, but her honesty. Read this, and ignore the reviewers; this is not a quiet, genteel collection, but its exact opposite–it’s a collection of short stories that analyses the great violence that the construct of the perfect Indian family has visited on all of its inhabitants.