Written by on October 14, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth

Jhumpa Lahiri, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies, returns to the short story form in her latest book. 24472130.JPGOnce again, her subjects are Bengali immigrants and their children, assimilated into American culture to varying degrees. Her stories epitomize literary fiction: they aren’t plot-driven, but are in-depth, mostly interior portraits of characters and their relationships. But despite the the slow pace and lack of “action,” these stories draw you in. Often there is a secret involved: a sealed box of photos of a dead wife, found and pawed over by the two daughters of the second wife; a father’s new girlfriend, concealed from his grown daughter simply because he can’t find a way to talk to her about it; a grad student’s knowledge that his roommate’s boyfriend is cheating on her. In this passage, the dead wife’s only son finds his new stepsisters looking at pictures of his mother:

When I opened the door to refresh my drink I saw that Rupa and Piu were no longer watching television, which was what I’d assumed they’d been doing all this time. I called for them, checking the kitchen, the bathroom, then went upstairs, to the door of my old room. I didn’t hear them talking, and seeing from my watch that it was already ten o’clock, thought maybe they were asleep. I opened the door, looking into the room for the first time since I’d come home. The lights were on, and I saw my old bed, and a folding cot placed beside it without any gap. The things I’d had on the walls, the poster of Jimi Hendrix and a copy of Paul Strand’s “Blind Woman” I’d ripped out of a magazine, had not been removed. The closet door was open, and there was a chair in front of it as if positioned to pull something down from the shelf. I had thought the room would be transformed with Rupa and Piu’s things, but there was no sign of them apart from the extra bed and small pile of toys they’d gotten for Christmas neatly stacked in one corner. Close to this pile sat Rupa and Piu in their party dresses. They had their backs to me, were hunched over something on the carpet that I couldn’t see. “She looks sad in this one,” I heard Piu whisper in Bengali, and then Rupa, saying, “She and KD smile the same way.”

“What are you doing?” I said.

They leapt apart, startled, realizing I was there. Spread out on the gray carpet, arranged like a game of Solitaire, were about a dozen photographs of my mother taken from the box my father had sealed up and hidden after her death. Even from a distance the banished images assaulted me: my mother wearing a swimsuit by the edge of the pool at our old club in Bombay. My mother sitting with me on her lap on the brown wooden steps of our house in Cambridge. My mother and my father standing before I was born in front of a snow-caked hedge.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I said now.

lahiri_200s.jpgLahiri’s characters miss opportunities to draw closer to each other; they long to connect, but remain trapped in their solitude. Click here to listen to an NPR interview with the author — she discusses fictional characters as imaginary friends and life’s shortage of happy endings. She also reads an excerpt from the book.

author photo: Elena Seibert

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