By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Lahiri’s writing is not stylish: You could retell any of her stories any number of ways and they would retain their power, so rooted are they in the circumstances, events, gestures and characters of her invention. This is unusual in a literary era when good writing has become something of a parlor trick, but there‘s little decoration to Lahiri’s prose, nor is it sleek and elegant. Her sentences are free of unnecessary tension, trim but not taut. She never overreaches for a description. Her dialogue gets things done. And she never once lapses clever or sentimental. Her economy is such that whole relationships can be summarized by gestures. For instance, take the hostile kindnesses that define the relationship between a mother and a son-in-law: ”She . . . knit him a beige and brown scarf, presenting it to him without the least bit of ceremony, as if he had only dropped it and hadn‘t noticed.“
On the surface, Lahiri uses the same vocabulary as contemporary realism: people cooking, hanging posters, couples not speaking while they eat. It is familiar, nearly transparent stuff. But her power of thought is so great that the mere words melt away at the reader’s touch like a wax mold used to make a bronze image. What‘s left is indelible, and seems to have been there always.
In the story ”A Temporary Matter,“ a couple who have lost a child to miscarriage haunt their unhappy household estranged from one another. When their neighborhood experiences a series of power outages, they begin to use the darkness to tell each other secrets about themselves, from petty betrayals to true feelings about each other. (”On the third night, she told him that once after a lecture they’d attended, she let him speak to the chairman of his department without telling him that he had a dab of pate on his chin.“) This ”game“ gives their relationship the unexpected structure of a fairy tale, and this new format causes unexpected things to happen between them. They aren‘t saved by any means, but their grief is enlivened, their disaffection banished, by this new sense of a story unfolding, of the weight the situation has suddenly lent to their most ordinary thoughts and words.
In ”The Third and Final Continent,“ which is the diciest story in the collection and the most unexpectedly rewarding, a deceptively dislikable narrator turns around and gives voice to exactly what makes the world go ’round, when he says, ”There are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.“ Is this not a summary of what compels and impels us, as individuals and as a collective, to press forward in ways large and small? Is this world not terrifying and gorgeous? Through Jhumpa Lahiri‘s many pairs of open eyes, it is.