Fiction is nothing but a narrator’s intelligent attention to the play of human feelings, but in the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri that attention takes a very distinctive, refined form. Her characters, genteel Bengalis now resident in suburban America, are themselves acutely conscious of the management of their emotions, of not behaving in an unseemly manner, of keeping their regrets and resentments to themselves. They not only speak without exclamation marks, but also think without them.
And on another level their creator is similarly reticent, steering well clear (the metaphor seems appropriate because in many of Lahiri’s stories characters are seen talking or thinking as they drive) of pathos or melodrama or anarchic laughter, always choosing a murmur over a shout. Both the writer and the characters, for their own particular reasons, want to put a brake on emotion, and the reader moves into the space they have left open. A sentence from the title story of Lahiri’s first book, Interpreter of Maladies, might exemplify Lahiri’s method. A woman, Mrs.Das, argues with her husband over who is to take their daughter to the rest room on a journey, and loses. All we are told about Mrs. Das's response is that she “did not hold the little girl’s hand as they walked to the rest room.”
The stories in Lahiri’s new book, Unaccustomed Earth, although they wander over familiar material in a familiar manner, are decidedly longer, slower, and better than those of the earlier set: they might be said to represent the perfection of a method that was at last glimpse only simmering.
These are Very Serious stories, stories that take storytelling seriously, and everything in them works together to let us know they are so: the slow, even sluggish, openings, patiently building up a scene and behind it a situation; the precise, serene sentences, accumulating weight and meaning clause by clause; the unvarying gravitas of the narrators, whether third-person or first-person – a mood and meaning that are gestured at even by the statuesque author photograph on the inside cover.
The shadow of death hovers over many of them, but humour or happiness seem remote. On one of the few occasions that a character makes a joke, he finds that “No one laughed”. A peripatetic widower sends a postcard to his daughter and her family that says “Be happy, love Baba” – “as if the attainment of happiness were as simple as that”, the sentence goes on, and although we guess this is Ruma's response, it might just as well be the narrator's.
Even so, the stories succeed on their own terms: many of them are exceptionally fine. In the title story, the widower mentioned above comes to spend a week with his daughter Ruma and her little son Akash. Lahiri’s achievement here is to capture all the registers of the encounter between three generations, and evoke the ghosts that drift alongside. Ruma and her father have never been particularly close, and indeed she suspects that he does not really miss her mother. He is never named, as if to emphasise that he is only a visitor. This is very subtle of Lahiri.
But Ruma’s father and Akash take to each other immediately, and Ruma is “briefly envious of her own son”. Her father takes to working on her garden, as he used to in their old home – his home, and in an insight characteristic of Lahiri, we learn that “when he thought about his garden was when he missed his wife the most”. He is now seeing another woman, but cannot bring himself to reveal this to Ruma: the positions of father and child have been reversed. Both are on unaccustomed earth, and Lahiri beautifully draws their situation out to something like a close.
And in the book’s best story, “Year’s End”, a teenager, Kaushik, is told by his father, also a widower, that he has remarried: that Kaushik now has a stepmother and two stepsisters. Kaushik loved his late mother dearly, so his father is prepared for outrage. But Kaushik, although taken by surprise, reports that “no turbulent emotion passed through me as he spoke”.
When Kaushik arrives home after his exams, he is received by his father, and notes how the decor of the house has been changed by a hand with a different taste in interiors. But the house itself seems eerily silent, “as if Chitra and her daughters were discreetly hidden in one of the many cupboards”. “Where are they?” he asks finally, and in those three words are contained all the uncertainty and pathos of one of the many orphans in Dickens. We hear Kaushik’s plaintive question almost as a cry: in the same instant the boundaries between the author, and the character, and the reader are erased, and Lahiri's fiction has worked its magic.