Tuesday, August 31, 2010

IAM Reader's Guild review: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

My blog reviews of the IAM Reader's Guild gatherings in 2010.  (see previous Readers Guild posts here)

August 2010:  Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Endicott, NY chapter of the IAM Readers Guild

Perfect for summertime reading, the eight short stories that make up Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth received unanimous approval from the Endicott gathering of the Reader’s Guild.  We were drawn into the lives of each skillfully-written character.  The few celebrations and the much heartache.

The unobtrusive manner in which Lahiri writes the cross-cultural tension for each Bengali-American family increased our empathy toward those among us trying to live as citizens of one country, yet honoring the traditions of another.  Some readers related to this tension through family stories of immigrant grandparents, handed down one or two generations.  Some readers, those who have lived out of country, have experienced a level of the culture shock themselves.  Others related to the hardship of straddling two worlds in other dynamics of life:  serving as a bridge among family members, relating to other walks of life in educational or socio-economic indicators.

The author describes the tension between cultures and generations so skillfully that we, as readers, felt it grow on us in layers, story after story, character after character.  The opportunity to discuss together the themes, settings, relationships found in the book helped us gradually awake to the author’s perspective, rather than have it thrust upon us. Like a slow burn leading toward a burst of flame, the three-chapter novella in part two of the book serves as a summary to this motif of cross-cultural and intergenerational disconnection. The romantic tragedy of Hema and Kaushik proves this almost dispassionate disconnection Lahiri writes so well.  Once again, the generations miss each other, the cultures miss each other, the lovers miss each other.  In the end, life goes on in almost parallel worlds. 

Ms. Lahiri chooses an excerpt from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House” as an epigraph for the book.

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

She describes in these stories the subtle complexities and the muted longings of her characters for fortunes in a fresh soil, but it seems too many times the roots do not grow deeply enough for relationships to thrive in the new terrain.  The second generation all receives excellent opportunities in a new homeland, but it doesn’t seem that they are building on the strengths of tradition and culture in the motherland.  If the author’s intentions are for us to empathize with the sacrifices and lament the loss of culture between generations, to wonder if the “ends justify the means”, she succeeds brilliantly.  If nothing else, she gives us pleasure in reading and insight into the commonality of the human struggle – no matter the earth in which we are planted.

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