Has it ever happened to you, to read a book for the second time in the space of three or four years, a book that you adored, and find yourself utterly disappointed on your second reading? Can it be that you have matured? Have you become less naive, more demanding? Unaccustomed Earth did just that to me last month, when I read it with a group of enthusiastic readers for my Reading Lit Books book club. I walked into this collection of short stories pretty confident that I would enjoy re-discovering its characters, whom I had all but forgotten, only to keep wondering what seduced me so much the first time.
Now before you decide not to read Lahiri’s second collection of short stories, let me assure you that it’s not a bad book. The stories are gripping, some characters are endearing, and as always with Lahiri, the problems that come with living between cultures are at the heart of hers and her characters’ preoccupations. Her prose is as fluid as ever, seamlessly carrying you from one point of the story to the other, without jolts, without many surprises. There is something in Lahiri’s writing that inexplicably makes me feel melancholy. I have never been able to put my finger on what exactly and I was surprised to realize, while chatting with the girls from the book club, that not all of them felt that way. Given that I can’t shake that impression off, reading Unaccustomed Earth felt like swallowing a daily dose of sadness and melancholy.
There is no denying, however, that Lahiri is obsessed by loss, death and bereavement. She paints the absence of a loved one with such details that you come to regret that character’s death. The first story, in which a young mother invites her father to stay for a week revolves around the absence of her beloved mother, after her sudden death a few months ago. In these sixty pages, Lahiri depicts the distress and despair of the young woman and gives you a taste of what loss feels like, its heartless claws stabbing you with every dug-up memory. Regret and remorse are frequent topics explored by Lahiri, as is the case in “Only Goodness”, probably the best short story of the collection, in which a young woman tries to save her brother from alcoholism, out of an enduring feeling of guilt because she “was the one who’d introduced him to alcohol”. “Only Goodness” explores how such a devastating addiction, paired with a total lack of communication, breaks a whole family and how closed ones can be not only utterly powerless but also unable to understand.
The main problem I had while reading Unaccustomed Earth this time was the stereotypical depictions of characters, particularly women, particularly women seen by men. Lahiri often gives the narrative voice the point of view of a male character and it seems that she is obsessed by the way men see and watch women. This results in cliché descriptions in which women are always beautiful, always sexy in their own way, most of the time unaware of the attraction they elicit. Their hair are always sexualized, their clothes too accurately described compared to how careless her male characters generally are. Because of these stereotypes, the male characters feel weak, unconvincing. Why would they all nurse a secret admiration for every woman they encounter? And why would those women never be aware of their power over them? These representations really bothered me and as a result, I did not care much about the male characters nor about the female ones. The most elaborate characters are those of “Only Goodness”‘, because the focus being on sister and brother relations, there was of course no question of sexuality and attraction — and that was refreshing.
The last three short stories are related, the point of view of the narration shifting from the two characters involved in a love story. It begins, as many other short stories do, in Massachusetts. The protagonists are young and their parents are friends, solely on account of their Indian origins. Kaushik is never aware that Hema fancies him. When they grow up, both characters become surprisingly handsome, and when they meet again in another country, they are inevitably attracted to one another. Again, those stereotypes. [Spoilers from here, you might want to jump to the concluding paragraph!] These three stories are also inhabited by the themes of loss and death, as Kaushik, the young man, loses his mother. Death gets closer and closer to the main characters in each story so that even when the love story actually flourishes, the reader is made to feel that something is going to go wrong, although the outcome is unexpected. After a brutal and frustrated separation because life is taking them their separate ways, Koshik spends a few days of vacation in Thailand before taking a new job in Hong-Kong. That is where he will die, he who has not gone into the water for years, as the tsunami sweeps the paradisiac coasts, while Hema is getting married to a suitable Indian man. I don’t understand why Lahiri chose this place and this disaster to close her story. In my opinion, the story would have been just as tragic if they had remained in their position and favored their career over their love, as they intended to do. Alive but never ever able to get in touch with one another: that would have been tragic. The death of Kaushik in a tsunami feels just too easily melodramatic, too catastrophic to be believable. It seemed to be just a narrative trick to add unnecessary drama to an otherwise pretty sad story.
So, Unaccustomed Earth might be a pleasant read if you’re in a mood for sad and brooding stories developed through a quiet and gentle prose. For me, there were too many stereotypes and I guess my taste for intellectual stimulation and witty prose has overshadowed my love for heartwrenching stories. The title made me dream of reflexions on belonging, transculturalism, migration and otherness and though this was tackled, the focus definitely is on universal human emotions such as loss, mourning and love. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I just think it’s better if you know what to expect.