Review: Unaccustomed Earth

October 11, 2011 Comments Off on Review: Unaccustomed Earth

The back of this book bears the quote “Stunning… Never before has Lahiri mined so perfectly the secrets of the human heart.” I suppose that’s more or less true, but that’s about all she does. Lahiri’s characters are beautifully constructed, and the way they interact is precise and rings very true; also, she is a very competent writer who can tell a seamless story with inconspicuous, effective writing. Nevertheless, I have two beefs: first of all, none of her stories have happy endings. Secondly, the writing is not beautiful.

I could deal with either of these problems if the other were not present. But it’s sad that her watertight writing doesn’t sport any pretty flourishes, nothing to suggest that the writer is an artist as well as a student of human (and particularly Bengali) nature. Every once in a while an attempt at figurative language stands forth from the rest of the writing like an exhibit, but it’s never anything spectacular and even if it were, its aloneness would be alienating. It’s an extremely strange problem to have—usually flowery writing needs to be tightened up; rarely does tight writing need to be dressed up. It is true, incidentally, that this book contains the most perfect epigraph I have ever read:

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. (from “The Custom House,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

It ties it in nicely to the title, gives you a great sense of the overarching theme of the stories without giving anything away. So you approach the eight stories in the book with anticipation that they will illustrate the effects of transplantation—and you will not be surprised (given the author’s name) that they deal mostly with transplantation from India. What is surprising is that the mood rapidly becomes bleak. I expected a variety of storylines; unaccustomed earth has a different effect on different people. And Lahiri would probably argue that this is what she tried to portray. But as the stories march past, the broader perspective they outline begins to look stuck in the past and fearful. Unaccustomed earth starts to look unwanted and unbeneficial. More than anything else, these stories seem to show that tight family ties, high expectations of family members and low expectations of marriage work in India, but in America lead to stiffness, deep unhappiness, and outright heartbreak. (So maybe you may as well stay in India?) Every main family or character starring in these stories is disappointed, sometimes very painfully. The arc of the stories makes comments about the clever little epigraph that look bitterly mocking.

I’ve always had a bit of an issue with writers like Lahiri, who seem to write sad endings all the time, not because they had a great idea for a story that happened to have a sad ending, but because sad endings are Serious and happy endings are Frivolous. I fully acknowledge that it may be my own tendency toward writing happy endings that makes me feel this way, but what is certain is that Lahiri’s endings are monotonous: everything is going well, then someone loses their temper or says something thoughtless and presto! everyone is sad, and someone’s life is ruined, at least temporarily. And this ending can come at the end of absolutely any story: a love story, a travel story, a story about being in school, a story about being a roommate, a story about losing touch with your brother. It’s dull!

But, as I said, great characters and great interactions, and Lahiri can really tell a story…as long as it doesn’t involve any poetry and ends badly for at least one sympathetic character.

EXCERPT (from “Unaccustomed Earth”):

It occurred to her that her father missed gardening. For as long as she could remember it had been his passion, working outdoors in the summers as soon as he came home from the office, staying out until it grew dark, subjecting himself to bites and rashes. It was something he’d done alone; neither Romi nor Ruma had ever been interested in helping, and their father never offered to include them. Her mother would complain, having to keep dinner waiting until nine at night. “Go ahead and eat,” Ruma would say, but her mother, trained all her life to serve her husband first, would never consider such a thing. In addition to tomatoes and eggplant and zucchini, her father had grown expert over the years at cultivating the things her mother liked to cook with—bitter melon and chili peppers and delicate strains of spinach. Oblivious to her mother’s needs in other ways, he had toiled in unfriendly soil, coaxing such things from the ground.

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