beccasbookstack, April 27, 2008
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Every story in this collection is a masterpiece. As much as I loved The Namesake, Lahiri’s novel, she is an absolute master of the short story, and I can see why she returned to the genre for her second book. She may well be this generation’s Alice Munroe, the writer who makes a name for herself with an entire oeuvre of short stories. With this collection (as with Interpreter of Maladies) I never for a second felt the sense of incompleteness short stories sometimes lend. Her characters are so complex, her prose so dense and delectable, the reader feels as if they are immersed in a full length novel.
But by far the most riveting of all are the three linked stories that make up Part II of the book. In Hema and Kaushik, we follow the fates of two people who first meet as children when their parents share a house one winter. Their lives separate and intersect in unusual and occasionally painful ways, until destiny brings them together one last time. Hema and Kaushik is a brilliant elegy to life and to love, to family relationships and the power of fate, and the ways they interact. It could easily stand alone as a poignant and perfect novella.
As in Interpreter of Maladies, all Lahiri’s characters have the common thread of nationality to bind them. But their ethnicity is not necessarily the “unaccustomed earth” to which the title refers. Most of them are traversing new emotional territory, much of it regarding loss - of a parent, a partner, an ideal. Relationships are explored in painstaking detail, as in “Only Goodness,” where an older sister tries her best to provide her younger brother with “the perfect childhood,” and is so bitterly disappointed when his alcoholism prevents them from having the adult relationship she desires.
Lahiri chose a quotation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s as the epigraph for this collection: “Human nature will not flourish…if it be planted and replanted for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children…shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.” This proves to be the perfect metaphor for each of Lahiri’s characters, in a volume of elegant, emotionally exquisite