Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday, 5 December 2008

"the namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri (Harper Perennial, 2004)

The book recounts the lives of Calcutta immigrants and offspring living in the USA, set in 1968-2000, told in the present tense. Smooth and competent, full of details, effortless transitions, and perceptual re-adjustments. Births and first dates are told in details, deaths and break-ups happen off-screen, often reported retrospectively.

Gogol's the main character - American born. His parents take him to Calcutta for long holidays. His marriage highlights the conflicts between family and academic life, between American and Indian lifestyles. His wife, born in circumstances like his, takes him to Paris where she had earlier re-invented herself, though she's conformist when mixing socially with academic friends. She called off an earlier marriage with Graham. A mutual friend tells Gogol "Don't get me wrong, Graham's a great guy. But they were too alike somehow, too intense together" (p.242), which worries Gogol though he does little about it. After little more than a year into the marriage she seeks out an affair. Gogol discovers, "And for the first time in his life, another man's name upset Gogol more than his own.", (p.283). Few opportunities are missed to comment on the suitability of people's names, especially Gogol's. This instance in particular sounds rather forced.

Later we read that "In so many ways, his family's life feels like a string of accidents ...It had started with his father's train wreck, paralyzing him at first, later inspiring him to move as far as possible ... And yet these events have formed Gogol, shaped him, determined who he is.", (p.286). Gogol's rather quiet, slow to take the initiative, and doesn't respond to all he sees, so perhaps the narrator needs to point things out. Early chapters are in the 3rd person, with his viewpoint becoming privileged. Chapter 10 is 3rd person privileged from his wife's viewpoint. Towards the end his mother summarizes her life. These other viewpoints help compensate for Gogol's quietness. I don't think we need what looks like the narrator's opinion too.

In the final chapter his widowed mother's hosting her last party in the house she's selling off. In his old room he finds the Gogol book his father had given him, and notices for the first time the inscription.

I liked the book, but there were few surprises and only towards the end (with pangs of feeling manipulated) was I emotionally engaged.

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