[(review date 27 October 2003) In the following review, Bromwich favorably compares The Namesake with Lahiri's short stories, finding her to be an intuitive writer with a talent for writing scenes.]
The hero of The Namesake is an American of Bengali parentage named Gogol Ganguli. Odd names are hard on a child, and Gogol, at a hint from his parents, changes his first name to Nikhil: a doubtful improvement. But what was he to do? Gogol's father believes that he owes his life to Nikolai Gogol, the author of The Overcoat, the book in his hand when he was rescued from a train wreck. The great Russian story, a fantastic proof of the adage that "clothes make the man," has inspired Jhumpa Lahiri to draw a delicate moral. Clothes and all the things that clothes may stand for--custom, habit, culture--are not enough to make a man. They tell you everything except what you need to know. Lahiri is an intuitive writer, very sparing in her use of the external shorthand of street names, family trees, the evidence of taste or pedigree. The backgrounds of her characters are apt to emerge in a turn of speech, or a memory that does not admit itself to be a memory. And yet, by the end of The Namesake, we have come to know Gogol Ganguli as well as we know most people. We know him well enough to stand back. His name and nationality, the job he works at, where he has lived, the people he has known--these data exhaust his case but they do not explain him.
The people in Lahiri's fiction--the stories in Interpreter of Maladies as well as this novel--often find an obscure comfort amid their larger dislocations. It may come as a prompting from habit or fetish, or from bodily necessity. So at the start of this novel, before the birth of the hero, Gogol's mother, Ashima, "wonders if she is the only Indian person in the hospital, but a gentle twitch from the baby reminds her that she is, technically speaking, not alone." The same charm against loneliness is shared in some fashion by Gogol's father, Ashoke. Yet the story is narrated in the present tense, which can seem to maroon people in the present moment, so that art becomes even slower than life. The experiment must have appealed to Lahiri because the present tense may also bring to mind the contingency of action and suffering, the things people do and the things that happen. It suggests a world without design, in which nothing is decided before it occurs. This is part of the freedom of Lahiri's characters, a freedom she does not confuse with happiness.
Lahiri is an efficient narrator but a born writer of scenes. The chapters on Gogol's childhood have an attractive economy of detail--as when his sister Sonia grips his hand on their first return to India, where the parents have shown themselves to be bolder and louder than the children have seen...