John Mullan on Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth – Guardian book club. As short stories go, the eight stories that comprise Unaccustomed Earth are lengthy: you will need more than an hour to read some of them. Yet, like all good short stories, even the longest rely on stopping short. Beginnings and endings often come more naturally in a short story than in a novel. The title story here begins with a father coming to stay with his daughter and grandson, and ends with his departure. The narrative alternates between the points of view of Ruma, newly arrived in a bleakly affluent Seattle suburb because of her husband Adam's well-paid job, and her father, apparently isolated after her mother's death, but in fact already embarked on a relationship with a widow he met on holiday. Ruma's father leaves for a different future from the solitariness and the dependence on her that Ruma had imagined, and the story ends when she has been made to recognise that "her mother no longer existed".
Unaccustomed Earth has 58079 ratings and 6319 reviews. Molly said: The title of Lahiri's latest book— Unaccustomed Earth —refers to the first.
"Hell-Heaven" works in just the opposite way: the events of the story span some 25 years. The female narrator tells us the history of her family's involvement with Pranab, a fellow Bengali immigrant to Boston whom they befriend and with whom her mother, silently and secretly, seems to fall in love. Pranab meets and marries an American girl called Deborah, to his own family's horror. The narrator and her parents encounter Pranab and his new family a couple more times, and these meetings are carefully described, while all other important events of their lives are only mentioned in passing. To make this a short story, everything that happens, except in relation to Pranab, is radically abbreviated.
And at the very end of the story, the narrator reveals a shocking fact about this man's impact on her family that explains why her narrative has been so selective. "Only Goodness" uses similar chronological distortion.
Sudha has not seen her alcoholic younger brother Rahul for over a year and a half, a time during which she has begun her married life in London, had a baby and gone back to work. Yet these "important" events are condensed into a couple of paragraphs in between Rahul's drunken disgracing of himself at her wedding and his sudden re‑emergence into her life. It might seem for a while to be doing justice to a family bond, but in fact it is to dramatise the baleful power of Rahul's influence on those who love him. With their density of specification, each one of Lahiri's stories could be supplying the material for a novel. Most begin with a quick sketch of the family history of the main character, complete with dates and places. The collection is divided into two parts: the stories in part one are not interlinked, and yet their social milieu is as unvarying as that of a Jane Austen novel.
The main characters are the sons and daughters of affluent immigrants from India to America. Their parents still speak Bengali and hope for arranged marriages – like their own – for their offspring. Often they live in Cambridge, Massachussetts.
The protagonists have gone to good universities and will usually achieve an affluence to match that of their parents. They all too readily assume the habits of their parents' adopted land. "Is this what happens to people in America?" asks one mother. Some reviewers have complained about the narrowness of this representation of the immigrant experience, but that regret is beside the point: Lahiri's interest is in being precise about habits and manners and family pressures, so she must (like Austen) be true to her own knowledge. The point of view of the immigrant's privileged child is usually that from which the story is narrated, but not always. In "Nobody's Business" we are in the mind of the scholarly, lonely Paul, secretly enamoured housemate of the exotic Sang.
Circumstances allow him to wreck her relationship with her appalling lover Farouk, but not to supplant him. The three stories in part two, entitled "Hema and Kaushik", are intimately connected, catching episodes in the odd relationship between the title characters from adolescence to middle age.
The first, "Once in a Lifetime", is narrated by Hema, who recalls how, when she was 13, Kaushik arrived from India with his parents and stayed with her family for a few weeks. Kaushik's parents are a little overpowering: they smoke and drink whiskey and spend money too freely.
Kaushik himself is surly and ungrateful, though Hema and her parents have given up their private spaces to these incomers. Finally Kaushik reveals to Hema the true, shocking reason for his parents' journey to America, and a few sentences later they are gone to their own, newly purchased house. Hema recalls how her parents come to resent the fact that, "after the weeks of forced intimacy", their erstwhile guests cease contact with them.
They feel "snubbed". Here the story ends; we are left to reinterpret the parents' behaviour in the light of the son's melancholy information. The abruptness with which the story concludes requires us to infer their secret suffering. Abbreviation suggests what cannot be told.