And hold on: There is a historical “hook” in Unaccustomed Earth—a reference to the 2004 tsunami. It could be a great talking point, which is maybe why it makes Lahiri a little uncomfortable. “The real event just sort of caught my character in there,” she says. “I don’t tackle major global events. I don’t like to read about something—an event, a cataclysm—in fiction for the sake of reading it. I will want to read [Lawrence Wright’s] The Looming Tower, because it will help me understand what happened on September 11. I mean, that’s what good nonfiction is for. And I think that the fact there is a major global event in this book—I don’t know if it was okay or not.”
In contemporary novels, “realistic” often means autobiographical, but Lahiri’s work has tended to anticipate the milestones in her life. Mixed marriages, parenthood, ailing parents—she wrote about all of these before she had any firsthand knowledge of them. It’s partly what made her seem so precocious, though she wasn’t published until her thirties.
Within the past few years, though, she’s moved to Fort Greene and had two children. Her husband’s parents both died while she was writing this book, and a few months ago (after she’d finished it), her mother survived a heart attack. Suddenly, the inevitability of a parent’s mortality—a subject that pervades her books—made the leap from plot device to lived experience. In “Hema and Kaushik,” a man whose mother died young finds eventual solace with the daughter of an old family friend. It recalls a situation in The Namesake, but in a way that’s at once less arbitrary and more complex.
Lahiri has made some structural advances, too—mixes of perspectives, mostly. But if you’re looking for something radically new, look elsewhere. “I’m the least experimental writer,” she says. “The idea of trying things just for the sake of pushing the envelope, that’s never really interested me.” We’ve been conditioned to read such reluctance as insecurity, but maybe it arises from a confidence rare in writers: the conviction that the material that matters to her is the only hook she needs.