Thursday, May 1, 2008

Life's little surprises (Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri)

The process of adding years to our lives and coming to points where our years of experience outweigh our years of possibility. Hopefully we feel like some of that experience has made us wiser and yet not so wise that we can never be surprised. The disappointment or contentment we feel with life seems caught up in the balancing act of those two components. We take our measure of them in the little things of life like being able to garden, doing our shopping independently, feeling needed. That seems to be the subject of the first section of Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection of stories - Unaccustomed Earth.

In one story A young woman is visited by her widowed father while her husband is away on business. She is pregnant with her second child and agonizes about whether to ask her father to move in with her family, as would be traditional in Bengali culture, or live the freer more independent life to which she is accustomed. Meanwhile her father grows to love her young son while he harbors a guilty secret - he has begun a new romantic relationship. What I admired about this story was the movement between the inner life of both daughter and father - one younger one older - but Lahiri lets us know them with equal intimacy.

In another story a couple nearing forty go to the wedding of an old female friend of the groom's, leaving their young daughters at home. Their marriage has reached a point of familiarity where experience outweighs surprise, and the alcohol available at the reception is the spring that releases long pent-up jealousies and disappointments between an otherwise typical couple. This story is remarkable for its breadth, spanning 25 years in 40 pages. In the beginning of the story, we are introduced to the couple getting ready for the wedding at their hotel, but in order to build up the meat of the story complicated by the husband's visit to a school he hated and the wife's jealousy of another important woman in her husband's life, Lahiri goes off on eight-pages of exposition which one would expect to call a tangent but I hardly noticed the time shift so interesting were the events, so confidently did she make the move from one time to another, and so necessary were they to the plot. At that point the story didn't seem to be able to go anywhere else.

These stories, lean as they are, feel novelistic. We learn an extraordinary amount about the people in them - always through the small details of life - a late night phone call, the gesture of an older sister to a younger brother that seems to her to seal his fate. The events as Lahiri presents them always seem to me to verge on the petty but it is her attention to detail through which we witness the consequences. It is as if, through one silly comment at a wedding, or one torn dress we learn about their entire lives. You will notice I have not hesitated to talk a little about plot this time, but what I'm not offering you are excerpts. I think that is where the surprises lurk in this reading experience - not what happens per se, but the feeling of inevitable unfolding through simple words - words about the baby's bath, planting a garden, mailing a postcard. There is a good deal of sadness in these stories. I feel Lahiri hovering around a larger theme of loss - but not loss without reward or occasionally redemption.

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