The struggle of Gogol’s parents to make a new life for themselves in the States recalls that of Nasreen in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, although she came from much poorer stock. And many of this book’s themes – the enigma of arrival, split loyalties, the constant see-saw between the desire to shed one’s old self and the fear of cultural amnesia – will be familiar to readers of Asian diasporic literature.
Lahiri is aware, too much so at times, of such tropes. She has Gogol attend an academic discussion about ABCDs – American-Born Confused Desis. She can be eloquent, to an extent that jars with the plain, unadorned prose that characterises the rest of the novel, about the nature of immigritude: “Being a foreigner is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that the previous life had vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding.”
At times her characters seem to be defined chiefly by race and generation alone. They come across as conditions as much as human beings. A pall of ethnic pre-destination hangs over them. None the less, the insights that she furnishes on the immigrant soul are valuable, capturing particularly well the claustrophobia that afflicts the men from Bengal.