Unaccustomed Earth – book review


‘Unaccustomed Earth’ by Jhumpa Lahiri was lying on the bookshelves of the rundown library round the corner, where I had gone in search of ‘time-paas-chick-lit’. I grabbed the book, (1) Because the author is so well-known, and (2) Because I enjoyed her other book, ‘Interpretor of Maladies’.

Image courtesy: randomhouse dot com

Unaccustomed Earth is, like her other books, about the lives of people of Asian origin, born/settled abroad, and the life they lead, their cultural background always casting a shadow/spell on them as they merge into western society.

As always, much has been said about the book and the author. And now, let me add my twopenny worth…

For one, the writing is very simple, yet both gripping and evocative. Lahiri skilfully captures the lives of Indians living abroad, the mundaneness and the pressures of merging into a whole new society.

What however, stirred something in me, is the loneliness in every story. And by that, I do not mean, sorrow caused by catastrophies, but a strange loneliness that entraps a person, a feeling that one just gets accustomed to, begins to enjoy. It is what makes one huddle into a shell, even when surrounded by people who love him/her.

To me, I would attribute this to a conflicting interplay of culture. I believe that children born/raised in either the homeland, or in the company of extended family/friends are more communicative, and enter mainstream society easily. While on the other hand, children born/raised in a country different from the homeland, are prone to a lot of pressure. Coping with different cultures, language, looks.. this can be rather overwhelming, especially to a child/young person. [There are several exceptions, ofcourse, but this is my theory 🙂 ]

Coming back to the book.. the characters are all extremely well etched. It is easy for the reader to understand a variety of sentiment.. the thrill of having a crush, the pain of unrequited love, the loss of a dear one…!

What I fail to understand, not about the book, but about Life in general, is : Why cannot things/situations be simple Black or White? What is the necessity of varying shades of gray? Consider a person with a drinking problem.. why can he not overcome his addiction? A person in love, why can he not just be bold/communicative enough to follow his dream?

It scares me to think of the ways in which we, ourselves, complicate life.. that we find it easier to compromise than to sort things out!

That ignoring/living with problems is the only way forward, because other attempts fail?

That we do not believe in fairy tales any longer!

That even when there is a choice, we would rather be ‘practical’, than risk all considering there could be a whole, beautiful, new world lying ahead!

So, this book, to me, was a touching account of relationships. Of everyday lives.. of families next door. It could be the story of the author. It might just be that of the reader!

A read that stirs something, somewhere.

Edited to add:

The review would be incomplete without fair criticism (which incidentally was mentioned by Smitha and Mon)

A regular reader of Lahiri’s may tend to find the book repetitive or stereotyped. This is partly true, in terms of frequent references to the lifestyle of immigrant families, Bengali culture/cuisine, inter-caste marriages, affairs, the families themselves becoming affluent, etc. Also, [at the risk of being repetitive myself 🙄 ], there is this underlying loneliness, sadness and stark nomadic tendency in many of her characters. While this can be moving to some, it may seem, to others that she were writing about the ’same’ character every time, only changing the name/gender.

Now, to give the author her due, this is clearly the epicentre of her writing. Tales of Bengali families merging into a different culture. And if one were to analyse, the individual stories in this collection focus on a unique conflict / relationship problem. For eg., one is about a brother going wayward.. the other about a woman silently in love with a man she is not ’supposed’ to think of!

To me, this repetition enhances the bitter taste… of truth. I cannot help feeling sad for the characters. And for the conflict they have within themselves.

The common backdrop, is what makes the stereotype. I do not know, if a variation, is too much to ask for 🙂

Having said that, I would be very curious to see if Lahiri’s writing would be just as moving, if it were on any other topic. We will have to wait and watch!

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32 thoughts on “Unaccustomed Earth – book review

  1. Hi Pallavi,

    Thank you for the review. Let me check with our NLB about the availability.
    Got to know about another good book that talks about people / cultures and relationships.

    Cheers
    Ratna

  2. One of my all time favorite authors.

    I rather not say much cos I am highly biased towards her. 😀
    But yes, I loved this book. And the other two too. 🙂

    Her writing always seem to “stir something somewhere”, isnt it?

  3. Pals, I loved her earlier books, but this book, I found rather stereotyped and also to some extent depressing 😦 But that might have been me 🙂

    I may have been in a phase where I read too many similar stories 🙂

    1. Same here .. may be I will read it sometime again after a few different ones 😉
      Nice to read a different review abt this book Pal 🙂

    1. * Mahesh: Thank you for dropping by! Btw, this theme is called ‘Motion’ by WP. And do let me know once you have read the book 🙂

      * Miss M: Yes, it does stir something..leaves one a little despondent, perhaps?!

      * Anish: Please do, but if you don’t like it, don’t blame me 🙄

      * Smitha: You won’t believe this, but I logged in now to ‘Edit’ the post, to include the point on the book becoming stereotyped (immigrant families, Bengali culture/cuisine, inter-caste marriages, affairs, high levels of education, etc.) .. and here’s your comment… absolutely right on dot! I guess that’s the author’s USP.. isn’t it? Her work is entirely based on Bengali immigrant life. This book leaves a mark on me, because it tastes bitter .. with truth!

      * Yuva: I don’t think I’ve read the Namesake before.. or have I? Confused! Will try to watch the movie though. Thank you 🙂

  4. i read this book long back but somehow was not very impressed the only reason being that the stories kind of tend to be very repetitive

    she seems to be writing only a certain kind of books

    this one was a disappointment for me though I picked it up with great enthusiasm the week it realsed

    1. * Ratna: Sorry, your comment went into Spam for no reason!! Do read the book and let me know what you felt.

      * Mon: I guess the ‘stereotype’ factor that Smitha has mentioned, led to disappointment.

      Methinks the stories are each unique..but the setting.. or backdrop.. is exactly the same. That is probably why we feel its repetitive, when infact, each story in the collection deals with different relationship problems.

      For eg., one is about a brother going wayward.. the other about a woman silently in love with a man she is not ‘supposed’ to think of!

      Again, there is this underlying sadness, a certain loneliness, and stark nomadic tendency in many of her characters. This again, can be moving on one hand, at the risk of stereotype. One can easily assume she were writing about the ‘same’ character every time, only changing the name and gender 🙂

      I cannot help, but feel sad for these characters. Which is what made me anxious, about the myriad ways in which we complicate and throw Life away!

  5. Nice review with nice thoughts…. 🙂 🙂

    I took the interpreter of Maldies book… but couldn’t go beyond few pages… It takes me long time to understand… hope I finish that… and then will read this one…

    1. Uma: And if you don’t like it… I hope you wont blame me for having wasted your time 🙂

      Pix: You will? Even after the stereotype related feedback? That’s great. I hope you do read it.

      Kanagu: Thank you! Actually, Interpretor of Maladies is her best work, I think. Its very short stories, and to tell you the truth, I tend to skip a few lines in between 😯 to get to the crux sooner 🙂

      Mon: I think so too.. it must have been the same repetitive background. Too much of anything is bad, isn’t it? And now, Lady, give a brief thought to that languishing Scrabble board, will ya? 🙂

  6. Echo all your thoughts about the book Pal. When I read it for the first time I too felt the same.
    What however, stirred something in me, is the loneliness in every story. And by that, I do not mean, sorrow caused by catastrophies, but a strange loneliness that entraps a person, a feeling that one just gets accustomed to, begins to enjoy. It is what makes one huddle into a shell, even when surrounded by people who love him/her.
    You have put it beautifully into words.
    I am also……infact have always been endlessly fascinated with bengali culture. So that might also be a reason for my liking the book.:)

  7. Pal, an excellent review! Being a hardcore fan of Jhumpa Lahiri, I have of course, read every single story or essay she`s ever written. And what you think of as stereotype is what makes me completely in awe of her style! I could never write a hundred stories on the same theme(bengali immigrants in the US – and of late the second generation ones). Each of her characters is very different from the other. The stereotype appears because of the common theme and an underlying melancholy in her stories. But I loveeeeeeeee her all the same :):)
    Excellent, excellent review!!

    1. Indy: Thank you, this is a new WP template called ‘motion’. And thank you also, for appreciating the review! I don’t really know much about Bengali culture, but there was this other book (forgotten the name now 😦 ) that got me interested. I think it was a fictional account, based in Chile. Then I read another book based in West BEngal. Followed by the unimitable Khaled Hosseni. And now, this. All these are so rich.. steeped in culture.. culture-shock too!

      Piper: Oh thank you thank you so much! You are bang on when you say ‘underlying melancholy’. That’s the perfect word.

  8. Hmm that loneliness you are talking about…it’s strange yet true. Many immigrants go through it at some point of time and some of them never come out of it 😦

    I am yet to read this book for the simple reason Smitha has stated. I read a couple of her books at one go and have decided to give some time to refresh my brain before reading yet another Indian lost in Umreeka story 🙂

    1. Vimmu: Sheeeeesh!!

      Saksh: LOL @ ‘another Indian in Umreeka’. I think you and I could write a book – cross border Indians 🙂 Thanku for appreciating the template.. all credit to wordpress!

  9. Been a while since I’ve been here and Wow, great new look! Iv’e seen the movie “the namesake” and ever since have been trying to get around to reading Jumpha Lahiri’s books. Haven’t yet managed to do so 😦

    1. Thank you, Dreamer. I haven’t managed to see the movie yet.. hope to do so some day! But beware.. this book can be a little depressing!

  10. i;ve read jhumpa’s The Namesake.. and i really did like her writing style and her command over the language.. but i hvnt read any other book of her’s.. i did read the back cover of a few of her other books n i did find they typically are about ppl of indian/asian origin in foreign lands… thats why i didnt pick them up…so ppl arent wrong if they think she’s repititive…

    1. True, one tends to form the impression of stereotype in her writing. But if one were to analyse, each story is infact about a different problem/different relationship, all with that underlying melancholy. I would go with the suggestion some of the other lovely ladies here have made.. to take a break and then return to read this book. It will leave an impact.

  11. PAl,

    exactly my thoughts while I was reading the book. Good but repetitive to the point that you cannot make one story from another .

    BTW , I was searching for your twenty books challenge post . Did u delete it ?
    Hey, I just hid that page, as it was not quite valid any longer 🙂 You want it back?

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