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Unaccustomed Earth - Jhumpa Lahiri

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Author: Jhumpa Lahiri / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 01 June 2009 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC / Title: Unaccustomed Earth / ISBN 13: 9780747596592 / ISBN 10: 0747596592

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      30.08.2012 21:49
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      A book of short stories about Bengalai families migrating to other countries

      Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

      This book was unusual in the fact that I actually bought this in Waterstones at almost full price. It was part of a three for two offer and we had a voucher as a gift so we had fun choosing books in a book shop for a change. Usually I pick mine up from charity shops or through Bookcrossing or have them handed on to me by friends or relatives.

      I know they say you shouldn't chose a book by its cover but if that is the case why do the publishers spent so much on selecting covers for their books? I admit the cover attracted me. It has a huge colourful wave a bit like the famous Japanese woodblock print " The wave off Kanagawa". I was also drawn to the author's name as it sounded India, turns out to be Bangladeshi but a pretty close guess. On top of that the author of the 'Kite Runner', Khaled Hosseini was quoted on the front saying "Lahiri's enormous gifts as a storyteller are on full display... gorgeous." With all that I just had to buy this one.

      I am not really a big fan of short stories as I never really feel you get into caring about the characters before the story finishes. I was therefore a bit disappointed to find this was a book of eight short stories rather than one story. The blurb on the back didn't give that away at all. Well having bought the book I was determined to read it.

      The first five stories are all stand alone while the last three sort of tell the story of two characters and build up to a longer story. The author was born in London of Bengali parents but she grew up in the USA and all the stories are similarly about Bengali immigrants and their families usually in the USA but they do also travel to Europe.

      The book begins with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne's Custom House:
      "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."

      This is the first story in the book. Ruma is married and has a young son. Her widowed father comes to stay and initially things are tense but her son loves his grandfather and the two of them do up the garden giving Ruma a nice break. Father has been travelling the world and Ruma offers for him to come and live with them.

      The characters are well painted and you feel the tension followed by relief as the three characters settle into a comfortable way of living together. It is a sort of bitter sweet story her and father has a secret that Ruma discovers accidently at the end of the story.
      I was just beginning to get into the story when it finished.

      This is another rather sad story about a Bengali woman in an arranged marriage whose husband brings home and befriends a young Bengali man. The lady rather fancies the young man and they become good friends. He marries a white woman and they drift apart. It is really a story of relationships and jealousy.

      I really didn't get into this story as it was pretty short. Although it was well told and the characters well developed it was too short for me to have a chance to care what happened and when it finished I felt sort of flat.

      Amit and Megan were invited to Pam's wedding. Pam being an old school friend of Amit's.They had booked a hotel to make it a bit special as they had a night away without their two girls. Megan finds her outfit has a stain and says she can't go however she is persuaded to go finally.

      You feel her slight apprehension and jealousy over her husband's relationship with Pam but despite this Megan relaxes and enjoys the wedding. The story does have a bit of drama but I won't spoil that.

      Despite the fact that not a lot happens in the story it is well told and managed to keep me interested though not gripped.

      I won't go through every story but suffice to say they are all about Bengali families and their relationships. They involve conflicts between the younger and older generation as the younger ones take on more of the new culture and start to reject the old ways.

      The last three stories I found caught my interest far more because they built up on each other. The first story introduces Hema and Kaushik the two main characters. They are children whose families are friendly. Kaushik's family return to Bangladesh for a new job then mysteriously return to the USA and stay with Hema's family. The story tells of the children's confusion; Hema resenting the fact that this family are staying so long and that Kaushik is in her room while she sleeps on her parent's bedroom floor.

      The next story tells of Kaushik coming home to meet his father's new wife, a young Bengali woman only a little older than Kaushik who has two young daughters. Relations are little strained as they get to know each other. Something fairly dramatic happens and they go their separate ways. We get to know Kaushik a little more but I can't say I warmed to him much in this story. I thought the whole thing was really quite a sad situation and felt for all parties concerned.

      The third story in the set about Hema and Kaushik has them meeting again as adults. Their relationship develops. This has to be one of the saddest stories in the book. Somehow though,despite guessing the end I still managed to enjoy the poetic style of writing.

      Lahiri tells her stories in a true traditional manner painting pictures of the scenes and people in them. I could almost see the characters and could certainly imagine their houses and the meals they ate. The descriptions of the little girls newly arrived from Bengal in their too thick sweaters over their Bengali clothes is something similar to scenes I see so often in Derby even today.

      If I had known this was a book of short stories then there is no way I would have bought it however I did quite enjoy it. I particularly enjoyed the final three stories that blended into one as I felt I really began to feel I knew the characters by the third story. They could each be read as stand alone short stories but to me they became more interesting once I linked them together and realised that I could piece together what I knew of the characters from the previous stories.

      I found the stories interesting and well told but the fact that they are short stories limited the depth by which I could learn about the characters. I know lots of people enjoy short stories so i hate to mark this book down because of the fact they are short stories but I was very disappointed when I found out that it was not a novel. As short stories go they were good and I did like the fact that they were all about Bengali families who had migrated to America or other countries as I have spent most of my life travelling from one home to another in different countries and having to make new friends and adapt to new cultures.

      I enjoyed the stories but would go quite as far as some of the critics in their acclaim for her writing.

      'Lahiri's enormous gifts as a storyteller are on full display ... gorgeous' Khaled Hosseini

      'Probably the most influential writer of fiction in America' Financial Times

      'Contains some of the best, most beautiful fiction written this decade - the kind that will be read 50 years from now' New Statesman

      'It's difficult to think of a contemporary writer who gives her characters so much dignity ... Fiction of matchless restraint, yet also of rich, complex lives and credible characters' The Times

      So maybe I am missing something or maybe it is my dislike of short stories . I found them good but not amazing. I would read another book by this author but wold check it was a novel first rather than short stories which I always feel leave me a bit short changed.

      Thanks for reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same username.


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