After reading the first few stories in Unaccustomed Earth,
I didn’t think Piazza had a chance. Lahiri has some kind of writerly superpower. The emotional stuff of her charactersBengali immigrants in various states of acculturationis so thoroughly mapped and truthfully rendered that you don’t have a sense of having read about these families, but of knowing them well and passing entire uncomfortable weekends with them. Lahiri micromanages a dozen subspecies of guilt and love and never slips up. Nothing ever rings false.
Piazza can’t write like thisfew canbut he has two powerful trump cards here: Hurricane Katrina and the novel form. City of Refuge
follows two families in the wake (literal in one case) of Hurricane Katrina: one from the inundated Lower Ninth Ward, and one from a middle-class neighborhood on higher ground. Piazza’s passion for the city (he also wrote Why New Orleans Matters
) powers his descriptions of the flooding and his detailed understanding of the devastations and conflicts it created. This book made me ashamed for failing to absorb, at the time it happened, the enormity of the flood’s aftermath and the diaspora that followed. It feels important in a way that Unaccustomed Earth
does not. I almost broke into tears (possibly hormonal) three or four times while reading it. Piazza forced me out of the comfortable remove of my Google Earth satellite view of post-Katrina New Orleans and took me down into the day-to-day realities of the people whose lives were uprooted. The dysfunction and anomie of Lahiri’s uprooted Bengalis seemed trivial by comparison.
Had Unaccustomed Earth
been a novel, I suspect this might have ended differently. Though characters from one Lahiri story pop up in others, the stories are discrete, disconnected. Rather than creating a narrative current, the various linkages created, for me anyway, a thematic repetitiveness that left me uncompelled to finish the book. But what do I know. Michiko Kakutani calls the book a testament to Lahiri’s
consummate artistry. Both women won Pulitzer Prizes. I was a runner-up in the 1990 Institute of Food Technologists journalism awards.
In closing, let me add that Tom Piazza is the perhaps only author on Earth to have used the verb festoon three times in one book. It’s possible he should be stripped of his Round One crown for this, but I’m going to let it pass. Go, Tom go!
City of Refuge by Tom Piazza