Jhumpa Lahiri's 'Unaccustomed Earth' looks at migrations of the heart

Toward the end of Jhumpa Lahiri's mournful, deeply satisfying new collection of stories, two Bengali lovers visit a museum in an Italian town founded by the Etruscans. There, amid dusty sarcophagi, they discover shelves lined with terra cotta urns depicting the journey the Etruscans made to this landscape — a landscape since claimed and reclaimed by several other populations.

"The sides were covered with carvings showing so many migrations across land," observes Lahiri's narrator, "departures in covered wagons to the underworld." It is a beautiful, yet idealized, image of how people get from here to there — nothing at all like the scattered, dislocating journey she or her family made to the United States.

Unaccustomed Earth is a profound meditation on the emotional undertow of these migrations. In settings from Seattle to suburban Boston, from Rome to the clattering streets of Calcutta, Lahiri's cast of mostly Bengali characters struggle to grow accustomed to their new homes, their new families created by loss sustained in faraway places.

In the title story, a recently widowed father flies out to Seattle to visit his daughter, a new mother, ferrying a secret about a woman he has begun to see.

Once in a Lifetime chronicles a brief time when the Chaudhuri family lived with friends outside Boston while searching for a new home. It later emerges that their house hunt has a haunted edge: Mrs. Chaudhuri has cancer. The home they buy will be the place she dies.

Throughout Unaccustomed Earth a younger generation begins a new life while their parents age, their traditions diluted by American spouses and education.

An archipelago of elite American universities stretches through the stories, the arrivals hall for the younger generation: Swarthmore, Harvard, MIT, Colgate. Here is where Lahiri's characters meet, gravitating toward each other, sometimes pulling apart due to the centripetal force of parental pressure.

Few writers of any nationality write a love story as heartbreakingly as Lahiri. She did it in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies and she does it again here, several times, especially in the three linked stories that conclude the book.

What makes them so devastating is how often the end of an affair isn't just the collapse of love, but the loss of what that love represents. In the case of the narrator of Going Ashore, it is a chance to be whole again. Her parents, who moved to the United States, certainly knew they'd be giving up a sense of cohesion for a better life. But by insisting on an Indian husband for their daughter they make the fatal mistake of assuming life from a world away can be safely imported into a new world without breakages or cracks.

This is an impossible theme to capture in miniature. So though Lahiri paints domestic life with her usual precision, her tales' great power emerges from the way she compresses entire family histories into these stories. Like the work of Alice Munro and William Trevor, her tales read like miniature novels.

Finishing them, you almost wish the characters could know that here — in these pages — their lives make a beautiful, if terrible, kind of sense.

John Freeman is writing a book for Scribner on the tyranny of e-mail.

Jhumpa Lahiri's 'Unaccustomed Earth' looks at migrations of the heart 05/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 1:28pm]

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