Books Reviews

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The Namesake: Starting the way stories always used to start, this novel opens with the birth of the hero.

Gogol Ganguli arrives two weeks before he is due in August 1968, while his mother Ashima is preparing the snack she has craved throughout her pregnancy - raw red onions, Rice Krispies, green chillies and peanuts - "wishing there was mustard oil to pour into the mix".

It is the closest thing she can find in America to the street food she used to eat in Calcutta, her home.

Apart from the eccentric recipe, this could be mistaken for an unremarkable domestic scene.

But it is the brilliant use of detail here and throughout The Namesake, along with Jhumpa Lahiri's total mastery of narrative, that make this novel such a fine achievement.

Ashima has suffered a traumatic upheaval, moving with the husband she does not know from India to America.

Separated from her own close family, she is lonely and unhappy that her baby will be born into such a foreign place.

For the rest of Gogol's life, nothing much happens out of the ordinary. He grows up, goes to college, discovers music, buys a Che poster for his student room, and loses his virginity one night at a party.

The boy turns into a man who can't wait to ditch his ridiculous name (after his father's favourite author) and escape his parents and their resolutely Bengali existence. The other milestones - marriages, deaths, separations - all come and go as well.

But Lahiri relates these events with such clarity that you can't help but care deeply about the characters. …