As mentioned previously, the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award will be presented to Jhumpa Lahiri later this month. In a controversial decision, the jury decided to dispense with the traditional shortlist and announce her collection, Unaccustomed Earth, as the outright winner. You can read an illuminating interview with Lahiri here.
The success of the book—it went straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list—is enough to gladden the heart of any lover of the genre, or cure any publisher of the prejudice that short story collections do not sell. Fortunately the work itself more than lives up to expectations. Lahiri has a calm, beguiling style that immediately draws the reader into the lives of her characters, a hidden world of Bengali immigrants transplanted to suburban middle-America: 'I spoke to no one of your arrival; I almost never revealed details of my home life to my American friends. As a child, I had always dreaded my birthdays, when a dozen girls would appear in the house, glimpsing the way we lived.'
The narrator's use of the second-person singular address in Once in a Lifetime, from which the above excerpt is taken, is masterly. In Hell-Heaven, also published in the New Yorker, the sadness of a woman who has loved and lost is conveyed through the prism of her daughter's childhood memories. The quietly devastating denoument of the story reminded me of 'The Dead' in James Joyce's Dubliners. I can think of no higher praise.
- ► 2009 (14)