UNACCUSTOMED EARTH by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf), 333 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories creep up on you. Almost all of them begin as safe stories about middle-class South Asians adapting to immigrant life. Then they develop into powerful, insightful tales about family, love, life and death.
In the title story, a professional woman fears that her father, visiting from India, will want to move in. In another, a student falls in love with his beautiful and elusive housemate and can’t help getting caught up in her romantic dramas. A third deals with the insidious and destructive impact of alcoholism.
A trio of stories that close the book track two families whose lives cross in surprising ways. As a series, they demonstrate the Pulitzer Prize winner’s impressive craft. Just as you think you’ve moved away from one story, a small detail in the next reminds you that what you’ve already read is still wholly relevant.
Lahiri is not a flashy writer, and that’s key to the way her stories get under your skin. You can be gently lulled by her deceptively simple prose until she offers an essential piece of information that changes everything.
Yes, Lahiri’s characters are upwardly mobile immigrants attending elite universities, with all the privileges that entails.
But these stories have an emotional depth that only a gifted writer can achieve.