Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Unaccustomed Earth

This month's Book Babes pick is Virginia's, and it is Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories by the Pulitzer Prize winning author,  Jhumpa Lahiri.

"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."
~Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Custom-House"

Most of the characters straddle two, if not three continents or more, with settings that include Massachusetts, Seattle, London, Rome, Volterra, and Khao Lak.

Calcutta and Bombay are continually referenced but not treated as present settings. The cities are mentioned in passing, as places of shared history, or places that characters remember or plan to revisit. One exception is the last story, with a scene that describes a bride choosing a wedding sari while mourning the death of her true love.

Although most of the characters are Bengali the themes are universal. Loneliness, isolation, addiction, loves lost, and opportunities that remain un-blossomed. 

These are not uplifting, light-hearted stories but tragedies of the human condition explored with compassion and insight.  Most of us enjoyed the book, although there was some criticism about the final story being somewhat manipulative and a bit exploitative. One of our book club members disliked the entire collection because she felt the fiction was contrived. Personally, I felt Lahiiri to be an amazing storyteller, but not of the same calibre as Alice Munro.

One of the characters is observed,  "That was Rahul, always aware of the family's weaknesses, never sparing Sudha from the things she least wanted to face." (p.138)

Lahiri is unsparing in the sense that she points our gaze toward things we would rather not see. A hole in a dress, an unhappy marriage, alcoholic brothers, mothers dying from cancer, emotional dishonesty, tidal waves that sweep away the life of possibilities.

Her observations are so keenly drawn you become an observer yourself, drawn into the lives and pains of others. 

Although the prose is beautiful the stories are achingly sad. I had to ask myself, why read such unhappy tales?

Because... life does not always deliver happy endings, Hollywood style. Because.... no life goes untouched from sorrow or difficulty.

Sometimes the stories I read spill over the printed page. In a crowded subway or a restaurant I might look around and wonder what is going on in the strangers' lives around me, what they've experienced, if they are unlucky or lucky in love. Stories like these enrich those musings. They help me appreciate my blessings but also remind me others have sorrows and uncertainties.

We may sometimes feel alone, but we really are not so alone, after all.

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