Book Review: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
I started recommending Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2008 novel, Unaccustomed Earth, after I finished its first chapter. It begins slowly with deceptively banal descriptions of domestic surroundings. Each chapter focuses on a different character and much of the plot development takes place in their homes. Lahiri’s detailing of these spaces is almost pragmatic--she outlines modern kitchens and lists the contents of their cupboards. However, hidden in the margins is an emotional richness that builds as the stories develop. The slow immersion into the characters’ personal worlds provides an undeniable intimacy and, by the last page of each story, you are struck by the weight of their lives. It was this weight that I felt at the end of the first chapter and that pulled me into the rest of the novel.
Yet, despite its matter-of-fact writing and well-defined setting, I had a hard time describing the book to people. Bare bones, Unaccustomed Earth is about the experiences of first and second-generation Bengali immigrants as they build lives in the United States, namely New England. But this description smacks of the touristic in a way that feels like a betrayal to Lahiri’s work. Though the novel is about immigrants, filled with references to India, as mothers’ saris, long flights to Bombay, and sticky jars of mango chutney are consistent characters in its eight chapters, I hesitate to label it foremost as a collection of immigrant narratives. And yes, the novel also satisfies the checklist of American culture, with Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, snowy New England winters, and cul-de-sac communities that are only navigable by car. But again, these accoutrements do not adequately describe the novel’s themes.
For me, Unaccustomed Earth is better described as an exploration of the strange isolation that marks modern suburban life. And of course, the suburbs are deliciously strange. The popularity of American artists like director David Lynch, whose body of work is founded on the dystopian nature of suburban safety, speaks to this alienation. But addressing this strangeness in a way that is not too sentimental, caustic, or mocking is challenging. After all, for all its peculiarity, the suburbs are still home to 175 million Americans (thanks, Wikipedia). Lahiri seems to explore the microcosms of this alienation in a way that is beautiful in its simplicity. Many of the homes she describes are marked by sturdy, stone walls and large modern windows with living rooms that open to expansive kitchens. These homes are bought and sold with ease, and bedroom walls through which children hear their parents arguing at night are passed on to anonymous buyers. To me, these transient, impersonal domestic spaces are defining features of suburban life.
But, if Unaccustomed Earth is a meditation on loneliness and loss, I do not believe that it is a wholly pessimistic one. The shifting settings of the characters’ lives do not erase their persisting memories. It is these memories that make their homes feel intimate, even when their structures are isolating. “Once in a Lifetime,” the novel’s seventh chapter, explores this theme. Hema, a young girl, falls in love Kaushik, a boy from Bombay whose family is living in her house until they find their own property. The story is marked by death, as Kaushik’s mother secretly has breast cancer and will later die from the disease. Hema learns this when Kaushik takes her behind their home and reveals a forgotten grave site in the forest, where he confesses that his mother is sick. Hema is horrified by the quiet intimacy of death, how it could rest anonymously in her backyard and hide secretly in her family’s guestroom. It would be a mistake to claim this feeling expresses some optimistic message. However, in a story where immigrants come to a new land, moving into foreign houses and losing family heirlooms in the process, there is an odd comfort in the steady memory of the people who inhabited these places before. It suggests that Lahiri’s characters do not live in true isolation, that their lives have meaning, and that even if they are physically transient, their memories take root in the places where they lived.
This idea reminds me of my own suburban community. As a kid, I was morbidly obsessed with the Kroger down the street from my house. For me, it was a place filled with dead-eyed strangers and the incessant beeping of scanned cans. But what was most strange about the place was its location in front of a cemetery. I often went there with my mom at night, passing the graveyard just before she stopped at the parking lot. That sprawling pavement and the grocery store that occupied it have since been torn down. The land was sold to a developer, who is constructing some giant, industrial center where my mom used to select our family’s produce. But whatever comes of that development, something tells me the gravestones in its backyard will outlive it.