Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri - review by Patricia Duncker

Patricia Duncker

Coming to America

Unaccustomed Earth


Bloomsbury 352pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

This substantial collection of short fiction became an instant bestseller upon publication in America and it is easy to see why. Lahiri occupies the classic territory of women’s interest fiction: domestic space, family relationships, and tensions, spoken and unspoken, between lovers, parents and children, siblings with shared childhoods, husbands and wives. The social community with which she deals is limited, and carefully defined. Her central characters are all Bengalis, Indian immigrants to the USA. Everyone is either rich and qualified, or busy acquiring university qualifications in order to get rich. Lahiri’s stories of intimate connection, or disconnection, take place between people who are already related or having sex. Political catastrophes, wars and rumours of wars are subjects for photography or inconvenient disruption – like the assassination of Mrs Ghandi, which results in riots on a trip home to Delhi. Natural disasters and diseases are wheeled on, like car crashes, to untie emotional knots: in ‘Going Ashore’, the tsunami sweeps Kaushik to his doom and out of the heroine’s arranged marriage. No one is bothered by religious or political convictions of any kind. Family and intimate relationships are what matter; the rest of the world is an unpleasant backdrop to the main act. The Americans say grace before settling down to Thanksgiving turkey. No one else even lights a joss stick or visits a shrine.

The material of these tales is not new. Bharati Mukherjee is Lahiri’s literary foremother. The Tiger’s Daughter (1971) and Wife (1975) examine exactly the same immigrant trajectories and represent the same encounters between Bengalis and the New World or Bengalis going home, transformed by the experience of another country. Lahiri

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