Friday, 16 July 2010

Unaccustomed Earth

Jhumpa Lahiri's new book is similar to In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (see below), and not least because both contain stories published previously by the New Yorker. Both are concerned with the children of Indian and Pakistani families making new lives in the US, but Lahiri's stories lack the bleakness of Muenuddin's. There is hope for her characters - for most of them, anyway.

Partly this is because she doesn't try, as Muenuddin does, to make her work reflect the whole of society, at all levels, rich, poor, old, young, male, female, urban, rural. His book is also more specifially located in Pakistan, whereas her world is the US, with the Calcutta/Bengali background of her characters as a unifying backdrop. As a result it's more affluent, and therefore by definition more optimistic, less bleak.

She writes about successful immigrants, who on the whole have accepted their new lives, marrying Americans, feeling American, at least in part. This must be one reason (apart from her extraordinary talent) why her writing is so praised and successful there: on one hand her experience as an immigrant speaks so powerfully to Amerian readers of all backgrounds, but she doesn't make non-immigrant Americans feel bad about themselves - there's no blame, no bitter social commentary, none of the angst than can characterise British Asian writing.

I found it interesting though that the one trait she can't relinquish, as an author, is her sense of herself as a Bengali, and a middle-class, immigrant Bengali at that. Her protagonists can be young or old, male or female, but they always have that identity at their core.

Although I loved the stories they are very much vignettes - not the great novel I'm always looking for. Her writing is exquisite, deceptively simple, totally penetrating, but I found myself wishing that she would give me more than just glimpses of the characters she uncovers with such subtle understanding. But perhaps her talents are simply more suited to portrait miniature than history painting.

It made me wonder, though, why readers - I know I'm not alone - so long for sweeping, compelling narrative as well as fineness of detail and characterization. What needs does it answer in us? Although Muenuddin's and Lahiri's style of writing is very much in fashion I can't help wishing they could work on a larger scale. The last book I read that had all these qualities was Wolf Hall, and it felt as though I'd waited years to find it. Then again, it was well worth the wait.

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