The first time I heard of Jhumpa Lahiri was when one of the members of my book discussion group selected Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s debut story collection, when it was his turn to choose the book and lead the discussion. The book had recently come out in paperback, and had also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I read the book and enjoyed it, and it was a good choice for our book group, but I didn’t think much about it after the meeting. I mean, I admired the writing, and I did keep the book, but I tend to like novels better than stories. I love losing myself in a wide expanse of narrative! A year or two ago, I finally listened to the audiobook of The Namesake, Lahiri’s full-length novel, and it did not disappoint.
Lahiri’s writing is always sharp and perceptive, so beautiful, yet so wise. It’s true that the novel, and many of the stories, feature Indians who have emigrated to the United States, and their Indian-American children. Her writings explore the complexities of family, home, love, and loss, through the kaleidoscope of her own heritage. Nearly all adolescents rebel against their parents, believe that their parents don’t understand them, and are embarrassed by their parents with some regularity. These things are all present in Lahiri’s work, with the additional layers of meaning and complication that a “clash of cultures” can bring, when parents are traditional, and their growing children embrace American “consumer culture” as part of their struggle to fit in.
Over the past few weekends, I listened to Lahiri’s second collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth. They were longer than those in her first collection, and I found this difference very satisfying. Most of her characters are well-drawn, “round” as opposed to “flat” characters, and once I got into each new story, I liked spending more time with them, getting to know them better, than if the stories had been shorter. Part One has five stories, and covers a little over 200 pages. There’s a grown daughter mourning her mother’s death, and trying to reconnect with her more-distant father. An older sister introduces her teenaged brother to beer, and he ultimately becomes an alcoholic. A husband and wife attend a weekend wedding, expecting a mini-vacation away from their kids, but nothing goes as they’d planned. Bengali immigrants and Bengali-Americans are central characters in all five stories, but the themes are universal.
Part Two, called “Hema and Kaushik,” contains three interlinked stories, totaling about 110 pages. As I listened, they seemed more like chapters or sections of a novella. I loved how long it was, because as it seemed a section was coming to an end, I wasn’t ready, I wanted MORE — of those characters, and of their stories. Lahiri gives the reader everything, until there’s no more to tell. The “Hema and Kaushik” stories are a masterpiece, nothing less. My chest ached as the tale progressed, the shifting perspectives indicated by the alternating narrators — first her view, then his, then hers again, back and forth until the end of the book.
I finished listening to Unaccustomed Earth yesterday afternoon, and as I wandered around my kitchen and living room, I had two thoughts. First, I asked myself, When will Jhumpa Lahiri have another book coming out? (I don’t know, but I hope it’s soon!)
Second, I thought, If she keeps writing this well, and publishes a book every few years, she will win the Nobel Prize. That’s my prediction. Now, if you haven’t yet read anything by Jhumpa Lahiri, go get started!