Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

"Unaccustomed Earth" by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury, 2008)

A daughter greets her father after an absence of several months. "He had not lost weight and the hair on his head was plentiful, more so, she feared, than her own after Akash's birth, when it had fallen out in clumps ... her bathtub was still filled with shampoos that promised to stimulate scalp growth, plump the shafts. Her father looked well rested, another quality Ruma did not possess these days. She'd taken to applying concealer below her eyes ..." (p.12). The character is having thoughts at moments convenient for the author who's hoping to bury an info-dump by interleaving the information. The spell of immersion is broken by the distant clatter of a keyboard. Plotting isn't crucial to her style; mechanisms tend to be kludgey or repeated. In the title story for example, we have a visiting parent (a topic she's covered elsewhere). College life, feasts and families are never far away, and all the narrators use words similarly. The idea of the child's garden seemed a little odd - a MacGuffin as much as a grandfatherly indulgence. The use of the postcard at the end works symbolically (the child wanting it to "grow") but would the child really have taken the postcard?

Lahiri's reliable; a good read. Like a lawyer she presents paragraphs of facts when making a point, hoping to convince by sheer volume of evidence. You'll know what's important because you'll be told and shown. In particular, dialogue isn't always left to speak for itself -

  • "Why?" In her son's small face she saw the disappointment she also felt.
    "Daddy's coming back tonight", she said, trying to change the subject. "Should we make a cake?"
  • "Kaushik, what about a picture?" my father suggested.
    I shook my head. I had left my camera ... at school
    "But you always have it with you" ...
    "I forgot it"...
    "I don't understand," my father said.
    "Neither do I," I replied. "You haven't wanted a picture of anything in years."
    "That's not true."
    "It is."
    We were stating facts and at the same time arguing, an argument whose depths only he and I could fully comprehend.

For me the transparency doesn't lead to immersion because there's too little interest generated (or maybe too few types of interest). Branches in the plot can be anticipated, following well-trodden paths, and they're well separated, giving time to guess what will happen next. Emotionally I'm told what to feel. I'm more spatially than temporally engaged - objects and interiors are carefully described and India/US differences are attended to. Big journeys mean big changes - any deviation from that pattern tends to carry significance. The few similes she uses are good - "swallows like giant thumbprints swiping the sky" (p.307) is fine.

No comments:

Post a Comment