Unaccustomed Earth

By: Jhumpa Lahiri
Subject Matter: Bengali Americans; Bengali; South Asian people; United States
Rating: 4/5

Unaccustomed Earth book cover

Unaccustomed Earth reminded me how much I LOVE SHORT STORIES!

Since college, I’ve stuck mostly to novels or nonfiction. But Jhumpa Lahiri‘s collection reminded just what I’ve been missing.

I’ve read a few of Lahiri’s short stories from her book Interpreter of Maladies – “The Third and Final Continent,” an absolutely wonderful, wonderful piece of writing; and “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” a very poignant tale about conflict and family – so I figured I was in for a treat with this one.

Boy was I right.

Lahiri’s stories, while all very different, all handle very similar subject matter: family, immigrants, culture, India, America, love. That’s what each of the eight stories in this collection boil down to, really. They each focus on characters of a similar generation, characters who parents were born and raised in West Bengal, characters who moved to America as children.

Unaccustomed Earth is split into two sections: the first is five unrelated tales of varying lengths; the second is three stand-alone but connected tales chronicling the lives of two very different American Bengalis.

I don’t know much about the Bengali culture, or what it’s like to uproot yourself and move to “unaccustomed earth.” While the Indian heritage is obviously important in this book, I think all of us who have found ourselves strangers in a (relatively) strange land can relate and deeply empathize with Lahiri’s characters.

I fell in love with each and every character, forgetting for a moment that it’s their culture that is foreign to me, not the American culture flooding every story Lahiri dreams up. The book is not Anglophilic but it is a far cry from unapproachable to non-Bengalis. Lahiri sprinkles her stories with brand names and movie references and specific events, subtly calling out the tenets of American culture that are so ubiquitous they’re almost invisible.

The stories are not all sad, but they’re decidedly not all happy. Not even close. There’s a strong undercurrent of nostalgia and detachment and loneliness threading these stories together.

The epigraph of this book is a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

It’s a reminder that while the “culture clash” (for lack of a better word) is hard on all involved, it’s the stuff of humanity.

It’s a rich, rich account that I think everyone can appreciate and love.




Enjoyed Unaccustomed Earth? Some suggestions:

(for more about immigration)

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li

Drown by Junot Diaz

Becoming Americans by Ilan Stavans

(for more about India)

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Collected Stories by Rudyard Kipling

(for more short stories)

The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway

Dear Life by Alice Munro

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories by Tobias Wolff

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

(for more by Lahiri)

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

(for books referenced in this one)

Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss

Complete Fairy Tales by the Grimm Brothers

The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

Euthyphro by Plato

The Odyssey of Homer by Richmond Lattimore

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Richard III by William Shakespeare


Coming up:

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Ground Rules by Renee Swann

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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