This week I finished The Namesake, the first novel of Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. When I first picked it up I had no idea what it was about, and knew only that Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland had been nominated for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award in 2013. In my decision to diversify my reading list, her works made their way to the top of my TBR pile.
But why this title, rather than The Lowland or the short story collection that won her her Pulitzer? To be honest I started it on a whim, in search of consolation on a lonely night. Scanning my bookshelves (both physical and digital), my usual comfort reads offered no sympathy, and the books piled by my bedstand with dogeared pages beckoning my return seemed too much of an obligation to commit to in my morose state. I needed something untainted by previous experience or association, something with which I was unfamiliar; The Namesake was all of these.
I was immediately taken with Lahiri’s prose, which is simultaneously subtle and elegant. Even the simplest passage pulses with the quiet lyricism that pushes the story along like wind over water. The story itself is simple: it is the story of a name, which becomes the story of a boy, which becomes the story of a family. It’s not “exciting” in the typical sense that we expect literature or film to be exciting, instead it is filled with a compelling intimacy that connects readers to characters in unexpected, unexciting ways. It is a novel that reads like a bedtime story whispered from the mouth of one loved one into the ear of another.
The Namesake initially follows a newly married couple, Ashima and Ashoke Ganguili from their home in India to the United States. It describes a few of their difficulties transitioning to an American lifestyle, the most notable of which results in their son being officially named “Gogol,” a name they had reserved for use by close family and not to be used in a legal context. This mistake haunts Gogol for much of his childhood and young adult years, not because he is overly fond of the Hindu naming traditions that dictate separate private and public names, but because this incident sets him apart from his friends and classmates. Though “Gogol” has become his official name for all intents and purposes, he later changes it to Nikhil, and does not come to fully appreciate his given name until he learns the circumstances under which he was given it, and even more so after the death of his father.
Though it is a simple story, The Namesake is comforting in the way it reflects life and memory. Events that seem important early in the novel may have little or no significance later, and things that appear to be inconsequential eventually return with greater consequence. Witnessing the most intimate moments in the lives of others this way is strangely soothing, not in a matter of escapism but of kinship.