The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: A Review

I have things I need to say. So, listen up!

The Namesake is probably one of the very few novels in the recent years to have struck home so closely. And not just because of its exploration of the immigrant experience (which is what everybody talks about. also, I’m a recent expatriate).

To me, the central tension in The Namesake arises from Nikhil’s ideas about who he is being at odds with his parents’ conception of who he is or rather who he should be. While the immigrant experience serves to throw this contrast in a sharper relief, the tension that arises from the desire to forge your own identity amid the burden of the expectations of your parents and the very milieu into which you are born, is true for any parent-child relationship, immigrant experience or not. It’s especially true for generations of Indians and perhaps for successive generations of other Eastern cultures as well.

I like the way Miss Lahiri treats the issue of identity. That one cannot gain a modicum of peace by outright rejection of one’s roots seems self-evident. And through the course of the story, in his own slow and roundabout way, this is the realization that Nikhil aka Gogol reaches as well. His journey is bookended by his two acts—the rejection of the name his father endows him with in the beginning of the story; and the slinking to a quiet corner in the middle of a party to read the book by “the man who gave [him] his name,” Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, 20 years after his father gave him the book, towards the end.

I cannot wrap-up this section without a quote by Edwidge Danticat that I came across recently:

[t]he idea of this great anguish of living between two worlds has diminished somewhat for many immigrant people, artists and non-artists alike. Not that there is not some uneasiness, but it is no longer the single most urgent anxiety of every immigrant’s life. And honestly, maybe it never was—except, perhaps, in literature.

I don’t think that the last sentence is entirely true but I do think that The Namesake might be a story about a certain generations’s immigrant experience. Globalization’s incessant march forward has meant, if not a narrowing, then certainly a bridging between any two worlds.

Now, on to the writing, that is completely un-showy and yet also exquisite. Here’s the thing that to me is exquisite: each word in the story has something to say; each word in the story builds on the one that precedes it till one is left with the impression that each word can stake a claim to its place in the sentence; nay, not just the sentence but also to the story that it is helping to reveal word by word. For example, here’s how Lahiri describes the act of adding on one’s fingers:

The tip of her thumb strikes each rung of the brown ladders etched onto the back of her fingers, then stops at the middle of the third.

There’s a sparse beauty to the detailed description of counting on one’s finger, isn’t there? The prose is just bursting with such details. Details that my description-leery husband didn’t actually skip through (he read the book too):

She stood behind her father as he’d drawn it, watching as he crouched over his easel, a cigarette dangling from his lips, his shoulders wrapped in a black Kashmiri shawl.

I just LOVE the way she uses all these details to give a sense of the character to the reader! (I’m sure other novelists do it too but for some reason I never noticed it till Lahiri).

The Namesake has no specific plot per se. Some folks might also call it a bit sad (the story does tug at one’s heartstrings and also made me cry at two places but the overall tone is one of hope and optimism). It sags a teensy-weensy bit in the center. BUT I loved it. And if any thing that I’ve written snags your interest, I would urge you to check it out.

The Namesake has also whetted my appetite to try out Lahiri’s most recent novel, The Lowlands. Hopefully, there will be more to it than just another version of the immigrant experience!