Saturday, August 23, 2008

What I'm Reading: Unaccustomed Earth

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my all-time favorite fiction writers. I first fell in love with her work when reading her story collection Interpreter of Maladies. Then, her novel The Namesake came out, and it was just as wonderful. This week, while getting back into my teaching schedule, I've been trying to read a story a night from her new collection, Unaccustomed Earth.

Lahiri writes out of the emigrant/immigrant experience, mostly Indians who move to Great Britain or America or the next generation of Indians born in the west. She is a subtle writer, and I am perhaps drawn to her for the quietness of her prose.

One story in particular took my breath away. "Hell-Heaven" tells the story of a woman unraveling her mother's life. Her mother and father were married in India in a traditional arranged wedding. The narrator has grown up in America and struggles to understand her parents. We are all alien to and from our parents at some stage of adulthood; however, the culture clash of being raised in India, as the narrator's mother was, and being raised in America, as the narrator was, brings that alienation into even sharper focus. The story ends, and I won't spoil it for you, in a jaw-dropping revelation about one moment in the mother's life which might have changed everything, but didn't. It's a story, intricately woven, of love, duty, and loss, three eternal components of the human condition.

Lahiri has a way of gently drawing me into her characters and their lives, exposing their cares and concerns in such an empathetic way that I can't help forming a deep bond with them. As is true of all great books, I am slightly saddened each time a story ends.

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