[(review date November-December 2008) In the following favorable review, Sen examines the major thematic concerns of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth.]
Indian immigrants in America--their material success, their intergenerational tensions, and their preoccupations--have become nearly axiomatic by now, so as you open Jhumpa Lahiri's third book, Unaccustomed Earth, you may wonder what more she could possibly have to say about them, especially since she already covered the same ground, with praiseworthy discernment, in The Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and The Namesake (2003). Shouldn't we be able to expect something new from her by now? If you persevere, however, there is a shock of insight: the particular has been honed to reveal the universal. Lahiri depicts uncertainty, betrayal, cruelty--and the looming presence of death in a culture that shies away from it. The puzzle is that this teasing out of what it is to be human comes from someone so young. Does the immigrant experience--"a life sentence to being foreign," as the parents sense in Lahiri's short story "Only Goodness"--lend itself to this? Does being torn asunder between two worlds, the one left behind, the one sought, heighten a consciousness of loss and death, as the fragments of existence do not quite come together?
Consisting of five short stories and a novella in three parts, Unaccustomed Earth focuses on relationships in which communication is often partial, and what is unsaid is perhaps more important that what is said. This is especially so between the generations; both seek refuge in concealment.
In the title story, Ruma, a successful lawyer, decides to give it all up for motherhood, causing much anxiety to her widower father, who would be happier if she went back to work. Does he have an unspoken fear about what might happen to her if her marriage to Adam, a white American, fails? Ruma's mother had forcefully opposed the marriage, while her father had refused to express his outrage, which to Ruma "had felt more cruel." Interestingly, though, Ruma's mother and Adam became friends, e-mailing each other and playing Scrabble together over the Internet. Ruma's father, after his wife's death, wishes to get away from his old life--although that is not something he is ready to share with his daughter. He visits Ruma in Seattle, and she "suddenly wanted to ask her father, as she'd wanted to ask so many times, if he missed her mother, if he'd ever wept for her death. But she'd never asked, and he'd never admitted whether he'd felt or done those things." After his visit, Ruma discovers an unmailed postcard he's written to a woman, and realizes that her father has formed a new relationship.
Indeed, the generations often regard one another with a cold, unsympathetic gaze. In "Only Goodness," Rahul, a bright son who had done very well at school and is now at Cornell, drops out, apparently uninterested. He has become an alcoholic, verging on the behaviorally disordered, and...