Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: The Namesake

I first encountered Jhumpa Lahiri in her newest collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth. My review of this stunning collection is here. It took me awhile to finally get to The Namesake (OK, it took me five months) although I had it in my actual TBR stack. Dr. H. got to it before I did and gave it a lukewarm review ("I liked it, but it wasn't fantastic"), so I wasn't in a huge hurry to get to it.

But I'm glad I finally did. The Namesake is Lahiri's first novel, and it doesn't hold a candle to Unaccustomed Earth; however, that collection of short stories was, as indicated in my review linked above, phenomenal. The Namesake dragged a bit and left me feeling sometimes wishing for more. Nonetheless, Lahiri's writing is excellent and her powers of perception amazing.

Gogol Gungali, the son of immigrants Ashoke and Ashima, despises his name. "Gogol" was a name indicative of neither his Bengali heritage nor his American birth. In fact, the name (which carries a story that he never hears until adulthood) was meant to be only temporary, until a better name was chosen, but Gogol goes through life being burdened by a name that hangs like a heavy chain around his neck. He obsesses about his name and eventually changes it.

The novel is essentially one of cultural identity, heritage vs. home, personal identity, and family ties. Big themes, but Lahiri handles them well and, for the most part, in a satisfying way. I think the novel works best in conveying the tremendous struggles in making a life in a new country, leaving behind deeply ingrained traditions and culture, as well as expressing the difficulties of the children of these immigrants.

Next on my list is Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. And although I've read so-so reviews, I'm also going to look for the movie version of The Namesake.


Literary Feline said...

I am really looking forward to reading the author's two short story collections. I read The Namesake last year and while I liked it, I wasn't overly impressed. I really liked the movie though, and think it helped me appreciate the book more.

Amy Pollard said...

Hey great review on The Namesake. Please check out my book review blog:
I also have a review of The Namesake, under "Medium Roast: Fiction"

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Lahiri's writing is quite beautiful and simple. This novel is in the present tense and her attention to the details of her characters' lives is effective and poignant. So often in contemporary novels the characters are either unlikable or unbelievable - the events described disturbing or outrageous. This novel suffers neither fault. It would be difficult not to become attached to the members of this family or to read this novel without being haunted by images from their lives.