Book Review: Unaccustomed Earth By Jhumpa Lahiri

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I love books by Asian writers, but I even more enjoy Asian writers whose works look at the lives of immigrants, especially Indians living and growing up abroad. Unaccustomed Earth is a novel with 5 short stories and a Part 2 which has three linked stories about two characters. The prose is brilliant, refreshingly abundant with the nuances of everyday life, and it is emotionally stimulating. The book was probably written to get a response out of the reader’s mind and heart. It is beautifully narrated, at times jarring in its realistic depiction of life and at other times emotionally wise and mature. I was surprised by how much I felt what the characters were going through. In the process of reading I absorbed their lived, emotions and at times, their warmth.

Reading the stories was like finding a part of myself within the pages. The first story ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ [also the title of the book] really exposed how people change over time and how the society’s norms and expectations are lost to us over time. I absolutely loved reading about the connection the father and daughter form after years of having a comparatively distant relationship. I understood from this story that we need to make difficult choices to move on and we can’t have everything we want in life. It also showed me that unless we properly communicate we will not understand what the other person wants in life, and we may harbor unnecessary negative emotions due to not opening up.

The story Hell-Heaven brought together very interesting characters and relationships. I liked reading about the attachments that are formed due to the shared cultures and how eventually what characters assume will happen is defied by what actually happens. It wonderfully depicts the life of immigrants who are looking for ways to connect with their home country. Sociocultural clashes are a main theme in the story. I also felt that the relationships of the women in this story reflected a general theme that we shouldn’t make the relationship a source of happiness in life. Our happiness should come from what we do.

A Choice of Accommodations was probably the story I found most relaxed – probably because the setting was the characters’ weekend away for a wedding. The couple belong to two different cultures but this does not really become the reason they drift apart, rather I felt it was the lack of proper communication and exchange that led to their lives being unsatisfactory. [Communication is really a big theme in this whole book] I think the story also looks at the way marriage needs to be rekindled sometimes. Though personally, I felt that all the stories in the books showed the pessimistic side of love and relationships – something that I don’t really feel comfortable with. Relationships take a lot of work and in all the cases in this book, communication was one aspect which was unfulfilled.

Only Goodness really broke my heart because I felt the whole time that in some ways I was reading about my own relationship with my siblings. It’s a beautifully sad story about one sister who takes it upon herself to ensure that her brother has the perfect life. Her plans for him eventually disrupt when he takes to alcoholism, drops out of college and makes some really bad life choices. I think the sister’s guilt takes its roots in the fact that she introduces her brother to alcohol – a drink their parents dislike immensely. It was a really beautiful story which also highlighted the importance of communication.

Both Once in a Lifetime and Hema and Kaushik are stories which broke my heart. The latter literally depressed me because of how brutal it was. The stories centers on friendship and love. Hema and Kaushik was one of those that presented a lot of different aspects of the lives of the characters, to the extent that I felt like I knew them like I know my best-friend. Their pain became my pain, and their successes made me happy for them.

I think Unaccustomed Earth was Jhumpa Lahiri’s successful attempt to represent all kinds of unsatisfying relationships. The stories focus on the individual, the community, the mundane and the exciting parts of life – and they’re not all happy. I recommend the book to everyone who enjoy culturally challenging and rich stories.

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