Thursday, 4 August 2016


In the past year, I've read more South Asian literature, or books written by authors with South Asian descent than ever before. The Namesake is one such novel. Jhumpa Lahiri is an Indian-American author, known mainly for her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. The Namesake was her first published novel.

I've come to find that a lot of South Asian English novels are quite complex. They are what you might call 'books written for writers' packed with metaphors, often written in plodding language or just absolutely perplexing. It often took a university seminar to help me unpack the text and discover the beauty in it. 

The Namesake is written in 3rd person present tense, which is a narrative style I don't think I had encountered before. Personally, I didn't LOVE this choice of narration, it often made the novel feel like one immensely long list, and also added a dark sense of impermanence, and temporality. (Although that might just be the lit student in me analysing it too deeply!)

The novel begins with an Indian woman called Ashima, who was born and raised in Calcutta but eventually moves to Cambridge, Massachusetts after marrying PhD student Ashoke Ganguli. They have two kids, the firstborn a son who they name Gogol after the Russian author Nikolai Gogol. The narrative eventually switches its focus from Ashima to Gogol, and begins to explore his experience as the child of Bengali immigrants in America. 

What makes The Namesake different to other South Asian immigrant experience novels that I could compare it to (such as Brick Lane by Monica Ali) is that on the surface, Gogol and his parents appear to have achieved everything they wished to. They live in a comfortable home in a safe neighbourhood with plenty of friends. They study in ivy league universities and do well as adults, with Gogol becoming an architect and his sister Sonia a paralegal and eventual lawyer. However, despite their apparent comfort, there is a sense of restlessness that surrounds the novel. Gogol works to disengage himself from his parents lifestyle as he rejects everything from his name to his actual parents, often not seeing them for months at a time. He fails to understand their mentalities, and is remorseless as he pushes them away. Not realising his mistakes until it is too late. 

There is a dark cloud that hangs over this novel. And though it left me feeling a little strange and unsettled, I did enjoy it! Lahiri is a WONDERful writer, and her descriptions of food! Ah. They stole my heart from the very start. 

For those of you who have read Brick Lane, The Namesake could be seen as a slightly more positive version of it. Despite that it's not a happy story, and it seems to me that the immigrant experience can never be easy for anyone. 

Published: 2003
Pages: 291

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