So there was the book, on top of my “to read” pile. An uninviting purplish-pink (dare I say ‘magenta’?), with some turquois waves, looking a bit as if it had been designed on an old CGA screen. The title was a bit more intriguing: Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’d read some Lahiri years ago when preparing for an exam, or at least I thought so, but I couldn’t remember the first thing about it. For all I knew, I’d put the book on my reading list and then forgot all about it. Just as I’d forgotten why I had this book. Did I buy it, and if so, why? Had it been given to me as a present? (… perhaps by someone reading this blog, in which case I will be duly embarrassed?)
I picked it up and started to read it, more due to a vague sense of obligation than anything else. My bleeding heart pinko liberal Spidey senses were telling me that it’d be good for me to read this, as it’s good for me to eat spinach and the like.
Unaccustomed Earth, I’m confident to say after having read it, is one of the best books I have read in the last ten years. Lahiri’s use of language is economical but never stingy, precise but not fussily so. Her characters feel real, but not because of the accumulated weight of details that you get with other writers; she deftly sketches their personalities with an elegance that is humbling. And her plots, while deceivingly simple, often carry a sting that is quite devastating.
I have an ambivalent relationship with short story collections. They’re often moreish, like a pack of Toffifee – one is so short and light that you’re sure another one won’t hurt… and then another, and another. And then you’ve had too much and feel faintly sick. There was no such moment with Lahiri’s stories – also because, unlike some other collections, it doesn’t feel like she’s belabouring a theme. There are motifs that are touched upon in all the stories, mainly because the majority of characters are the children of Indian migrants, but the book is definitely not dully monothematic.
Most of her stories are sad. They’re not grand tragedies (except, perhaps, for “Hema and Kaushik”, the final three-part story that almost qualifies as a novella), but loss runs through all of them, and more than once did I find my breath taken away by the feelings Lahiri evoked.
If you haven’t read any Jhumpa Lahiri, or if – like me – you’ve read her before but simply can’t remember whether you like her or not, give yourself a gift. Buy Unaccustomed Earth. Put it somewhere on your “to read” pile, preferably towards the bottom. Forget that you ever got the book and come upon it as if by accident. Give it a chance. I’m willing to bet you won’t regret it.
P.S.: If I did get this book as a present from someone reading this blog: thank you, thank you, thank you!
P.P.S.: After this one, I will definitely have to revisit The Interpreter of Maladies, if only to find out whether I did indeed read it. If so and I found it forgettable, the pre-exam pressure of “Gotta read x books by the weekend! No time to enjoy!” may have been to blame.