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Exiles on Main Street
Cultures -- and families -- clash in Jhumpa Lahiri's new story collection.

Reviewed by Lily Tuck
Sunday, April 6, 2008

UNACCUSTOMED EARTH

By Jhumpa Lahiri

Knopf. 333 pp. $25

In Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection Interpreter of Maladies and the acclaimed novel The Namesake, revisits themes concerning cultural displacement, only with a different focus. The eight stories in this collection revolve less around the dislocation Lahiri's earlier Bengali characters encountered in America and more around the assimilation experienced by their children -- children who, while conscious of and self-conscious about their parents' old-world habits, vigorously reject them in favor of American lifestyles and partners.

Lahiri, who was raised and educated in the United States and whose parents are Bengali, is adept at showing us these cultural and generational conflicts. The stories she generates from these clashes appear true to life, and while a few lack nuance and at times feel familiar, they are never predictable. Lahiri is far too accomplished and empathic a writer to relax her gaze; she excels at uncovering character and choosing detail.

In the title story, Ruma, a young married woman who is pregnant with her second child, has recently moved to Seattle, where she knows no one. Her husband is away on business for weeks at a time. Dislocated, she is also very ambivalent about the visit of her recently widowed father. She has little connection with him -- and never did -- but, out of a sense of duty and responsibility, she feels she must take him in to live with her and her family. As it turns out, however, the father relishes both his new independence and a clandestine romance. Told from both the father's and the daughter's points of view, which makes for some initial confusion, the story addresses numerous losses: the loss of home, the loss of a parent and the loss of expectation. "Deep down she knew that there was nothing wrong with her father," Lahiri writes. "Though it upset her to admit it, if anything, he seemed happier now; her mother's death had lightened him, the opposite of what it had done for her."

In "Hell-Heaven," expectations are again reversed. Here, it is Deborah, the American wife of a handsome, young Bengali called Pranab Kaku, who feels left out and tries to maintain contact with her husband's relatives and friends while he has turned his back on them. Yet at the heart of the story is the narrator's mother's chaste infatuation with Pranab Kaku and her distress when he marries Deborah. As the narrator explains, "He was the totally unanticipated pleasure in her life."

"Every so often a man called for Sang, wanting to marry her" is how the story "Nobody's Business" begins. Told from the point of view of Sang's housemate, Paul, a young man so lacking in self confidence that he feels he has transgressed by answering a phone call from one of the would-be suitors. An observer at first, Paul slowly begins to participate and play a role (again, on the phone) in Sang's romantic life until he actually interferes with (and does in fact transgress) her marriage prospects. Evolving in quiet, everyday language that corresponds to the narrator's subdued and unacknowledged passion, the story ends without resolution or epiphany but with a recognition of a truth and a discomfiting change.

The collection closes with "Hema and Kaushik," three linked stories following the evolving relationship of its eponymous characters. In the first, "Once in a Lifetime," Hema, the young narrator, addresses an unnamed "you" who turns out to be Kaushik and describes her first meetings with him; at the story's center is the revelation that Kaushik's charismatic mother will soon die of cancer. In the second story, "Year's End," Kaushik tries to come to terms with the death of his mother and with his intrusive new stepmother and her children. The final story, "Going Ashore," is set in Rome and is filled with lovely descriptions of meals, wine and sights that greatly enhance the aura of romance. Hema, who is studying the Etruscans and engaged to another man, meets up again with Kaushik, now a photojournalist, who travels the world photographing catastrophes -- one of which will determine his fate. All three stories are driven by compelling characters who manage to both accept and transcend their Bengali origins. Their struggles and concerns, as rendered in Lahiri's lucid and revelatory prose, are both universal and deeply felt. ยท

Lily Tuck is the author of "The News from Paraguay"; her biography of Elsa Morante, "Woman of Rome," will be published this summer.

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