Friday, May 2, 2008

The earth and the tide (Books - Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri)

The final triptych in Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection of stories, "Hema and Kaushik," is again novelistic in scope, following a man and woman - the title characters - through 30 years of their lives, switching between his perspective and hers and between first and third person voices. We witness them meet as children, follow them through adolescence, the typical events of average lives - the choosing of a profession, death, marriages - and to their unsurprising reuniting as adults. Unsurprising not because it is boring but rather because it seems inevitable from the start. If the first part of this volume is earth, then this second one is water - the story titles suggest this loosely - "Unaccustomed Earth," "A Choice of Accommodations" vs. "Going Ashore." There is an interesting juxtaposition of mundane detail and massive sweep. On the one hand, Lahiri, as I mentioned in my first post, finds the deepest emotional resonance in the finely observed details of the lives of her characters - within half a page of meeting Roger, we know how his eyes settle on what they observe, his thwarted ambition to paint, how he wooed his lover, that he lines his bureau drawers, that there is a glass shelf in his medicine cabinet. Roger is not, in fact, one of the primary characters in "Only Goodness." In that same story, we experience the central characters - Roger's wife Sudha and her brother Rahul - over the course of nearly forty years. Lahiri's overarching subject in this volume seems to be loss at it relates to those people and places we love most deeply. In these stories Lahiri examines this subject in the context of a large swathes of time - months and years, not hours or days, because she is looking at how love shapes one over a lifetime. Even while the substance of life is mostly experienced as a series of actions that by themselves seem ordinary - bathing a baby, a single sentence spoken by a young man to two girls - the forces she grapples with in the stories are oceanic, tidal.

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