WITH her Pulitzer Prize- winning story collection “Interpreter of Maladies” and her novel “The Namesake,” Jhumpa Lahiri established herself as a clear-eyed and compassionate chronicler of the lives of expatriate Bengalis and their first-generation American-born children. In her latest work, “Unaccustomed Earth,” a powerful collection of short stories, those children have left home and are starting families of their own, as they struggle both with tangled filial relationships and the demands of parenthood. The straddling of two cultures has been replaced by the straddling of two generations.
In the story that gives the collection its title, an aging widower experiences quiet exhilaration at being free of the demands of family. Only one suitcase to check at the airport when he goes on his overseas package tours, no lawn to mow or screens to replace now that he’s given up the house. And he has a traveling companion: “A girlfriend? The word was unknown to him, impossible to express.” He is as guilt-ridden about his contentment as Ruma, his daughter, is about not inviting him to move in with her family; in India, there would have been no question about it.
On a weeklong visit from his Pennsylvania condominium to her new home in Seattle, her father forms a close relationship with her son -- that and his compliments on her cooking break down Ruma’s defenses. Still mourning the death of her mother, and adrift in her new life, she aches for familial connection. She needs him, but when she tearfully suggests that he move in with her family, he declines: “He did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it.”
As in all her fiction, Lahiri’s prose here is deceptively simple, its mechanics invisible, as she enters into her characters’ innermost journeys. The moment-to-moment rendering of Ruma’s vulnerability and her father’s rising panic at all that he’s keeping secret sweeps the reader into a compelling emotional landscape.
Looking back on his marriage, Ruma’s father decides that “the entire enterprise of having a family, of putting children on this earth, as gratifying as it sometimes felt, was flawed from the start.” In “A Choice of Accommodations,” Amit and Megan are eight years into that flawed enterprise. During a weekend visit to his old prep school to attend a friend’s wedding, Amit comes face-to-face with his anxiety and unhappiness.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the plot of “A Choice of Accommodations” could be summarized with a connect-the-dots psychological profile, along the lines of “Amit’s parents sent him to boarding school at age 15 and returned to Calcutta, and now he has a problem with intimacy, and he’ll sabotage his marriage.” But Lahiri invests him (and her other characters) with great depth, and as the story unfolds she reveals in nuanced ways the resentments between the couple, their dependencies, their love and, most exquisitely, the sexual tension and release that follows a night of carelessness on Amit’s part. He too has harbored a secret -- the crush he used to have on the bride. When he finally tells Megan, "[t]he information fell between them, valuable for the years he’d kept it from her, negligible now that he’d told.” Their urgent lovemaking in a dorm room on the morning after the wedding -- bride and groom having left on their honeymoon -- is erotic and tender, spurred on by hurt and hunger.
A mother’s secret love for a younger man comes close to devastating a family in “Hell-Heaven.” The shocking revelation at the story’s close, when the daughter is reeling from her own broken heart, is a visceral blow and a haunting moment of connection between mother and daughter.
The last three stories are linked under the heading “Hema and Kaushik.” “Once in a Lifetime” is set in Cambridge, Mass., in 1981, as 16-year-old Kaushik and his family, having returned from India, move in with 14-year-old Hema and her parents. His parents are searching for a house, and the monthlong sojourn marks both teenagers in profound ways. Kaushik’s revelation of the true reason for their return shocks Hema out of her childhood innocence. For him, the weeks in her home become a poignant memory of family life.
The final story, in which they meet again as adults in Italy, is slightly jarring -- it’s the only one to take place overseas and their reunion has a touch of convenient inevitability about it.
“Year’s End,” the middle story, however, is profound in its realization of a leitmotif in the collection: the loss of a mother. During a Christmas visit home three years after his mother’s death, Kaushik can reconcile himself neither to his father’s new marriage nor to the arrival in his life of two stepsisters, Piu and Rupa, aged 7 and 10. His restrained narration of the story belies the ferocity of his emotion: His dislike of his stepmother, Chitra, is obvious, but his relationship with the two young girls is far more complex. Their journey to the United States and the death of their father mirror his own experience, and he’s protective of them, taking them to Dunkin’ Donuts -- where they “slid out of the booth and walked toward the counter, each of them holding a corner of the dollar bill as if it were a miniature banner in a parade.”
When Kaushik declines to join the family on a trip to Disney World, the girls are devastated, and he senses that “they needed me to guard them, as I needed them, from the growing, incontrovertible fact that Chitra and my father now formed a couple.” The inevitable outpouring of anger is, of course, misdirected; Piu and Rupa cower as Kaushik lashes out, disparaging their mother.
Describing the bond between a mother and her son, a character in an earlier story says, “He is made from your meat and bone.” Kaushik’s grief is that raw, that elemental. Elsewhere in the collection, Lahiri is sparing in her use of metaphor, of imagery, but not here. Kaushik’s nine-day road trip to the Canadian border and back, along a frigid and desolate coastline, resounds with loss. It’s a howl from the heart of a writer working at the height of her powers.