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Book Review: Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri

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By Simon Demetriou

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Jhumpa Lahiri’s work that her latest collection of short stories deals with people who are out of place, detached by colour, language, personality, experience or even imagination from the people and places surrounding them. What may come as a surprise is that Roman Stories lacks the colour, verve and occasional wit that characterises much of Lahiri’s earlier writing.

There is an argument to be made that this insistent dullness is part of the point. That giving characters no names, only initials or functions like ‘The Expat Wife’ or ‘The Widow’, forces us to question how far we define and are defined by our relations to others and the place we live, or how far we are nameless to the majority of those around us, or how the easy sense of connection forged for a reader by the simple act of naming a character is in fact impossible for the immigrants who make up the bulk of the characters in the stories. That having bad things happen without warning, without drama, without emotional colour forces us to confront the fact that, well, bad things happen without warning, without drama, and – for those with no choice but to carry on regardless – without time to dwell on emotional colour. And these are all, doubtless, valid positions to take. But, for this reader at any rate, Lahiri has not managed to make dullness profound; instead, it remains dull.

Not only is it hard to care about any of the characters because they’re deliberately kept far from us, it is hard to care because many just are not that well written. There is uncharacteristic clunkiness in the telegraphed way in which one character refers to ‘the soldiers who’d killed my grandparents’, or the use of this particularly limp simile to describe another character’s family situation: ‘three boys in quick succession, and then, like a simple but welcome dessert after a three-course meal, a girl.’ Things like this become hard to stomach in stories that are deliberately sparing of details that a reader might want. Lahiri doesn’t give her writing anywhere to hide, but she doesn’t pull off the perfection that such an approach needs in order to be palatable, let alone enjoyable.

Ultimately, the Rome of Roman Stories is a Rome of rampant xenophobia, of everyday suffering set against self-indulgence and privilege, of sadness, disenfranchisement and disillusion. I’d be more than happy to encounter such a Rome in literature, but I’d really rather be left moved by it one way or another, and unfortunately Lahiri’s Rome is a place I’m left feeling indifferent to. Which I’m pretty sure is not the point.

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