Review of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Much as in her collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, the emotional force of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, depends upon the silence of her characters. As the protagonist’s mother Ashima enters labor in the opening pages, she refrains from calling out her husband’s name, which she views as “something intimate and therefore unspoken.” This clear delineation between what is said and unsaid, what is intimate and what is public, becomes a principle of the Ganguli family’s relationships throughout the novel. The narrative’s destabilizing event is the birth of Gogol Ganguli to Bengali parents living in the United States. When cultural misunderstandings lead to Gogol remaining “Gogol” on official records—something his parents never intended—Lahiri gives us one of the primary conflicts of the story.

And while this complication is subtle and quiet, even–at moments–comic, Lahiri is masterful at drawing out the generational and cultural tensions that entangle the excruciatingly self-conscious Gogol. She’s at her best when relying on techniques dismissed by run-of-the-mill fiction writing guides. Instead of scenes, she relies mostly on a narrator who speaks with thorough knowledge of all the characters’ histories and occasional glimpses into their minds but whose almost academic diction keeps their hearts slightly shut off from us—much as the characters do from one another. When Ashima moves from paralyzed homesickness toward her first concession to living in America, shaping the rest of her life, Lahiri presents the turning point through summary. “She begins to pride herself on doing it alone, in devising a routine … Now she wakes at six … Between eleven and one, while Gogol sleeps, she gets dinner out of the way, a habit she will maintain for decades to come” (35). Lahiri has profound trust that her readers will understand the significance of these subtle yet all-powerful changes in her characters, without the volume of dramatic scenes.

So too she exhibits mastery of subtext, which underpins all the emotional strength of the novel. Because her characters are never demonstrative, the depth of their inner lives must be depicted in other ways, and Lahiri uses staging and description to their fullest advantage. To convey the passion of Gogol’s first relationship, Lahiri relies entirely on a train ride when it begins and where, on the same rail line two years later, Gogol fully comes to realize its end. Both scenes occur at sunset, but the details Gogol notices convey his emotional state. As he initiates the relationship with Ruth, the sunset is “feverishly beautiful, casting a … pink glow” that gives way to the “pallor that precedes dusk” (111). But ten pages later, this rosy tranquility darkens into an almost Gothic vision, as the sun “sinks … a solid, scarlet disk” while the leaves outside the windows hang “yellow, paper-thin” and he passes industrial areas “covered with rust … windows partly bashed in, ravaged as if by moths” (121). The initial “fever” has given way to a sickly, urban decay.

By the novel’s climax, I was not surprised that Lahiri centers it upon an object—rather than a dialogue with Gogol’s father or a familial exchange, as I had first expected. The question of how Gogol will reconcile the two parts of himself, represented by his two names and the different social worlds he inhabits, is answered by a book. Gogol is now 33 and stands, for the last time, in his childhood home, his father dead, his mother moving away. And on the bookshelf, he finds his father’s gift to him on his fifteenth birthday—a collection of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories, which he never read. Not even after he learned the reason behind his name and the way in which a similar book had saved his father’s life. When he at last reads the inscription from his father and begins the story that has shaped two generations of his family, Lahiri’s novel builds to an emotional crescendo achievable only by the quiet, measured construction of symbols and pivotal experiences, rather than spoken words, enabling her readers to grasp at last the tremendous love and connectedness within the intimate silences.

Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

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