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Flashback: reading like it's 1999

December 20, 2009 | 10:00 am

Lahiri_maladies

In our books pages today, several writers look back at the decade in reading. Of course, their perspective is retrospective, informed by this moment at the end of 2009. So to provide another angle -- what reading was like a decade ago -- Jacket Copy is returning to some vintage reviews.

In July 1999, Mark Rozzo reviewed the debut by Jhumpa Lahiri for the L.A. Times. Issued in trade paperback, there was nothing to indicate that "Interpreter of Maladies" would go on to win the Pulitzer and its many other awards and accolades. Nothing, that is, except for the voice. Powerful and assured, it quickly established Lahiri as one of the major literary figures of her generation.

This is how Rozzo saw the book back then:

"Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri; (Mariner: 208 pp., $12)

In "The Third and Final Continent," the closing story in this stunning debut collection, a Bengali man, after spending the last 30 years in the impossibly strange land of America, finds himself "bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept." A similar sense of bewilderment pervades these pages, as Jhumpa Lahiri's displaced Indian men and women are continually challenged to cope with new forms of everyday life and with each other, which they do, with comical pragmatism, hard-headedness and bitter honesty. The newlyweds in "This Blessed House" find themselves at loggerheads over what to do with the unlikely trove of Christian paraphernalia they uncover in their new Connecticut home; in "Mrs. Sen's," a recently emigrated wife is determined to buy fresh fish with their heads on, even if it means tackling her crippling fear of American roads; in "A Temporary Matter," a young couple take the opportunity of nightly power outages to tell each other horrible secrets in the dark; and in "Interpreter of Maladies," an attractive American-Indian tourist blithely confesses her marital infidelity to an astonished tour guide at the Sun Temple at Konarak. Lahiri's touch is delicate yet assured, leaving no room for flubbed notes or forced epiphanies.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Jhumpa Lahiri in Washington at the state dinner in honor of India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Nov. 24. Credit: Mandel Ngan  AFP / Getty Images

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