In Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake the central character is named after his father’s favourite author, Nikolai Gogol. Gogol despises his unusual name and longs to change it legally. While he eventually succeeds in changing his given name, he fails, however, to cast off the meaning imbued within it. These questions about the importance of our names and the extent to which they shape our lives are thought-provoking, though for me this wasn’t the most interesting aspect of the novel.
Gogol’s parents emigrated to the USA from India, and their struggle to acclimatise is depicted evocatively by Lahiri in her descriptions of the oddity of life as a foreigner. Ashima is particularly aware of the contrasts between her new surroundings and the home she left behind, and reflects poignantly on the idiosyncrasies of American life. She finds the idea of giving birth in a hospital unsettling, and is puzzled by the nuances of American social norms. Lahiri’s writing captures the sense of how disquieting it can feel to live in a foreign country:
For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts.
Lahiri is clearly a skilled writer, and it’s easy to appreciate why she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Interpreter of Maladies (as past winners include Cormac McCarthy, Junot Diaz and Michael Chabon, the list of winners is a fantastic way to find recommendations). By the end of the novel, however, I was thoroughly weary of The Namesake. This was the unfortunate result of one particular aspect of the novel: Lahiri’s writing aspires to be mimetic of the confusion and incoherence of life in a foreign country. The effect of this is to turn an engaging read into a tiresome, overlong novel; lacking a traditional plot structure, the story stretches on indefinitely. Gogol falls into a series of meaningless relationships, and appears to succumb to the influence of his displaced mother. This mimetic mirroring may be effective in evoking the sensation of alienation, but has the unfortunate side effect of alienating the reader from what is otherwise an adeptly-written novel.