Kim Williams's Reviews > The Namesake

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
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Aug 13, 08

bookshelves: current-works
Recommended for: all
Read in June, 2008

This book was an incredible read. From the first word, the exquisite narration draws you into the lives of the characters. It was thought provoking, inviting the reader to examine his/her own sense of identity and how this changes over time often due to circumstances greater than us. The accidents of life are what shape us into who we are.
The Namesake is a tale of conflict between the past and the present, the old world and the new. It gives a clear picture of the concessions that become necessary for immigrants coming to our shores. Many of the old country traditions either do not exist at all or must be modified within a community of others of your particular background. In this particular case, the family is of Indian background, but one can easily see their struggle as one most immigrants would face. There is a desire to preserve as much as can be saved of the traditions and norms with which one has been raised and often a battle to prevent excessive Americanization particularly in the next generation. The story of the Ganguli family illustrates this conflict through the theme of names.
Even at the outset, we learn that names have a special significance in Bengali culture. The wife has not ever spoken her husband's name. It is as a sacred word that is not to be uttered. The name they are to give their son, born in this new country far from the large family that should be present at such a momentous event, is also important. We learn of the existence of two names that are traditionally given; one a pet name, used only by family, and the other a good name for identification in the outside world. Several accidents of fate lead to the naming of their first born son and becomes known by this temporary, pet name. His further assimilation and break from tradition is also illustrated through his name as he decides to legally change it. Even so, the old name is still used at home, tethering him to the old ways. As often happens in reality, it takes a loss or other catastrophic event to make one look back and examine their roots more closely.
I don't wish to give away any more details so I will simply state that this book is at its core about identity. It is always a struggle in life to decide who you are and what you represent. This book gives us an intimate portrait of how that struggle is magnified for immigrants as they try to hold on to the past while living in the present.
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