by Jhumpa Lahiri
2008, Alfred A. Knopf
Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is the first book completed for My Year Of Reading Dangerously challenge. Short stories have seemed 'dangerous' since high school, but this year I'm making an effort to include more in my reading. Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of eight short stories; the last three are connected by character and have the feel of a novella. The book's epigraph, from "The Custom-House" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, provides the title and sets up a common theme.
"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
One or more character from each story is indeed on unaccustomed earth, yet the immigrant experience is not really what these stories are about. Instead, it serves as a backdrop to larger, more universal themes of love, relationships, and communication. Lahiri's prose is crystal-clear and full of wisdom and insight.
Each story is something special, but my favorite is the book's title story. Ruma, a young mother in a new city, is visited by her father. Since the death of her mother, Ruma has felt a duty toward her father and considers asking him to move in. Her father, however, has a new relationship that has been kept secret. During the course of his visit, Ruma's father transforms the backyard into a beautiful garden. The project provides him an opportunity to form a strong bond with his young grandson and to strengthen his relationship with Ruma. The ending of this story was an uplifting expression of love and acceptance.
I highly recommend this collection even if, like me, the short story is not a form that you feel completely at home with.