esther freud, ‘hideous kinky’ (1992)

★★★★★

I read Hideous Kinky over two days in a brief heatwave one week in early July, laying out on the grass in Kelvingrove Street Square, batting away greenflies and spotifying Om Kalthoum, drunken in the high-afternoon sun. It’s one of my most enduring memories from this summer — the summer of Commonwealth invasion and public transport diversions, the summer of sleeping until noon and walks home from work along empty, darkening roads. A perfect reading experience: the right book at the right time in just the right frame of mind.

Sometime (we infer) in the 1960s, a young restless single mother seeking experience and meaning decants her two young daughters from London to Morocco. The story takes the family from their arrival in this foreign dreamland, through almost a year of acculturation, and Mum’s affair with local entertainer Bilal, whose energy and easy warmth the girls take to immediately. Though subtly structured in the traditional style, the novel reads more as a series of vivid impressions: of the people, spectacles, and sensual reality of life in the Medina (Marrakesh’s labyrinthine Old Town). The spiritualist street conjuring of the Hadaoui and the dizzying dance of the Gnaoua. The laundry strings heavy with clean white sheets, soft bejewelled babouche slippers, and Mum’s favourite pair of pink velvet trousers. The fevered sleep, the fervent calls to prayer through Ramadan, the suffocating steam and slough of the Hammam. The ‘blazing halo’ of freshly hennaed hair in the morning sun. The moreish crumble of the street-seller’s mahjoun. The ‘sweeping sounds of Egyptian music [weaving] magic into the air like scent’. And the food. Mulberries, pomegranates, chickpeas, dates. Honey pastries and fragrant spiced soups. Steaming glasses of mint tea and long, cool Fantas.

The-Medina-Marrakech-2-Mor1 Maroc_Marrakech_medina_2_414ec005102b45a8afea50542bce8643

The novel doesn’t, however, read as a “culture clash” narrative in the traditional sense. This is due largely to our narrator, four-year-old Lucy, who lacks the life experience to truly understand how unusual her life has suddenly become (at an age where very few things do make sense). Lucy’s big sister Bea is her companion, her idol, her yardstick, and her tyrant, and seems to her sibling to have some innate, hugely unfair understanding of the bewildering adult world. Not only does Bea delight in taunting Lucy for getting her facts wrong, but she can remember and recognise Mum’s old friends from years past in London, and is even allowed to go to school with the other local girls. All of this creates an ambivalence in Lucy, as she is quite happy to while her day away at home, and quite often aware that Bea regularly bluffs her way through, but still feels jealous that her sister is winning the game — feels babyish, left behind, and ashamed. Her limited comprehension is reflected in what she chooses to share (and glances over) as narrator — her heartbroken mother crying over the onions, the man who ‘made a circle with his thumb and index finger and pointed through it with his other hand’, even the true risqué meaning of her favourite-words-cum-sisterly-shibboleth, incessantly chanted: hideous kinky, hideous kinky. But though the stunted childlike perspective is watertight, Lucy’s descriptive vocabulary and grasp of grammar is consistently well beyond her years, creating a narrative discord, a kind of literary optical illusion. We see what the child sees, but the implications play to an adult understanding. The overall result is a melancholy sense in the reader: a feeling of reembodying our younger incarnation; a bittersweet reminder of all the simplicity, complexity, and frustration of childhood.

I had never had a doll before and now I had three. They slept with me in my bed, becoming more and increasingly more demanding of my time. There were various complicated ministrations and attentions at particular and specific times of the day and night, and especially in the morning when Bea was at school and Mum was praying or on a visit to her bank.

Appropriately, Bea frequently demands to be entertained with a story from her younger sister, staunchly refusing to “take her turn”, and the two fire their imaginations whispering back and forth across the bed covers — frightening tales of The Black Hand, The Spooky Carpet, and Mum’s potential to slip off with the Sufis while they sleep. Indeed, the girls’ anxiety and unease is palpable, most particularly in Bea, who is often forced to assert herself as the voice of reason in the face of her mother’s flights of narcissistic fancy — as well as to comfort her in moments of emotional crisis. The lack of structure and clearly marked boundaries in their life is echoed in Marrakesh’s discombobulating warren of streets and Babelesque babble of languages; their mother slipping and sliding between English, French, and Arabic. From the incredible disappearing Luigi Mancini, to Bea’s going missing (and successive slide into ill health), to Mum’s last-minute leaps from moving trains, it’s no surprise that her daughters have subconsciously digested the conviction that this is a place of the lost and found, the found and lost — inherently unstable terrain.

hk alice lotm

In the book’s opening pages, en route to Morocco, Mum entertains the girls with Lewis Carroll’s ‘Lobster Quadrille’: Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance? Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance? This sets a keen tone for Lucy’s story, for the family’s subsequent “adventures” as they travel down the rabbit hole (again with the warrens). Somewhat coincidentally, I recently read both the Alice books and Francine Prose’s Lives of the Muses, which casts a lurid light on the story of the real life Alice Liddell and her “doting” chronicler Charles Dodgson. Despite Prose’s eloquent defense and best sympathies for a man maddened by the muse, “misunderstood” in his own time, it’s difficult to get past the fact he was primarily a man who sent erotic letters to children, took naked photos of them ‘for his own collection’, and accepted nothing less than a kiss on the lips goodbye — a fairly grim chapter in an otherwise wildly evocative portrait of history’s great creative (consensual) relationships. Based upon the most favourite of his “child friends”, Carroll’s formidable heroine wanders in a technicolor landscape of ever-shifting boundaries and volatile temperaments, of dematerialising cats with killer grins and tea parties where one must constantly move chairs whilst being variously insulted by a presiding madman; where she herself repeatedly shrinks and swells; where her emotions — her status as a lost child — are ignored, often cruelly. Similarly, Freud’s Medina figures as an, again, unstable terrain of eccentric and overinterested ex-pats — strange adults who don’t understand children as children, lacking any evident consciousness of boundaries or propriety. ‘”Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.’ ‘”Why don’t you both sit down and take some tea with me?’ the man said in perfect English.’ The girls are constantly being courted by the (it must be emphasised: non-native) grown-ups around them, offered gifts and alluring tall tales, with little intervention from Mum, and though this never transgresses to Dodgson levels of creepsomeness, it does make for an at-times uneasy reading experience. ‘I want to go home!’ sobs Alice in Disney’s 1951 rendition of the tale: ‘When I get home, I shall write a book about this place.’ Much like Alice, Lucy and Bea are consistently ambivalent about their new home: drained from being always out of their element, but utterly enchanted by the wonderland around them; begging their mother to leave then breaking their hearts when the notion becomes real. Much like Alice they are good, smart kids wandering naively adrift in a mad, mad world.

Gillies MacKinnon’s 1998 film version of Hideous Kinky does a great job of bringing the novel’s underlying anxieties to the surface, with nightmarish scenes of the girls racing through the wending alleys of the Medina, and their mother railing against the half-life of London with its grey skies and suddenly ubiquitous television set. Nudged to 1972, with Mum officially christened Julia, it necessarily loses the charm and poignancy of Lucy’s narrative take, instead focussing on the conflicts of a lost young woman struggling to raise two children alone in the wake of the 1960s. In this version of events, Bea and Lucy are the ones in the know, who drily identify their neighbours as prostitutes while their mother gazes naively upon her surroundings with the eyes of Alice, only assuming her adult role as an afterthought (‘Do you think so…? Where did you learn that!’). A fantastic soundtrack is driven by the raw yowl of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love’, again giving voice to Julia’s desperate quest for meaning, and again emphasising the Carroll connection (Grace Slick was so lastingly impressed with Alice’s Adventures since childhood that she penned acid-trip anthem ‘White Rabbit’ in its honour). Overall, an imperfect but enchanting adaptation — starring a post-Titanic Kate Winslet on her very own voyage of discovery — it’s certainly worth a watch.

To return to the task at hand, Freud’s debut novel is a fascinating non-memoir that had me dashing not only to buy up her other books, but to dredge up family mythology on the real-life Mum and that mysterious famous father back in England. Recommended for fans of far-flung climes, cultural dynasties, old-fashioned fairytales, and help-my-mother-was-a-bohemian narratives (believe me, it’s a solid genre). I could quite easily have read another hundred-plus pages. Best saved for only the sunniest (or most Seasonally Affective Disordered) of days.

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harriet lane, ‘her’ (2014)

★★★★☆

In Harriet Lane’s 2012 debut Alys, Always, dissatisfied sub-editor Frances Thorpe is drawn mothlike into the literary world of the alluring Kyte family, following a fateful encounter with its (now deceased) matriarch. Part taut psychological thriller, part Brideshead Revisited redux, the novel scored favourable comparisons to Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and was an early crest in the recent wave of narratives featuring fantastically twisted anti-heroines. Above all else, it introduced a confident writer with all the expertise and charisma to make you powerless to resist just one more chapter at 2am.

Those who enjoyed Alys‘s through-the-keyhole view of middle-class London and its shark-eyed glimpses of human vulnerability won’t feel like they’re being led into altogether new territory in Lane’s compelling new follow-up Her. Again we find ourselves in the company of a master manipulator who all too clearly sees the big picture; who blinks slowly in the face of her victims’ distress. Told in alternating chapters by successful landscape artist Nina and struggling housewife Emma, we quickly realise (even if Emma doesn’t) that these women share a fraught history — and that Nina doesn’t quite have her new friend’s best interests in mind. Like Frances before her, Nina often seems to turn up in the right place at the right time, and we soon establish a pattern of hearing events from Emma’s unsuspecting perspective before doubling back with Nina to see what truly happened. But while Alys, Always was ultimately a story of aching aspiration and ruthless opportunism, the driving desire for revenge at the heart of Her tips the balance, and we are now called upon to sympathise with a devil not only in Prada, but whose actions more and more frequently cross the line into cruelty. Here Lane plays with her reader’s assumptions: because of her similarity to Frances we might think we understand Nina — we trust her, as Emma does, to be a certain kind of (albeit monstrous) woman. But just what is she capable of? What is her long game? And what on earth did Emma do?

In the fledging years of the Women’s Lib movement in 1960s America, Ira Levin’s now-classic horror stories featured bright, capable young women brought to ruin by the selfish machinations of the insecure men around them. In Rosemary’s Baby, eccentric elderly neighbours court a pair of newly-moved-in newly-weds, offering support and wisdom through the young couple’s subsequent months of pregnancy. As it slowly becomes clear that something is rotten in 7A, Levin plays with ideas of women’s agency, the trauma of emotional abuse, and a mother’s obligation not only to sacrifice her own needs to protect her child, but to love and care for it, unconditionally. In Her, Emma is only susceptible to Nina’s manipulations because she’s so lonely and miserable in her day-to-day life. Though she loves her family, the once vibrant career woman now feels neglected by her husband, consumed by her children, uncomfortable in her own skin, and critically detached from her feelings. Repeatedly blaming her emotional fragility and giddy adoration on alcohol, in truth she is intoxicated by Nina’s presence and attentions; by this sophisticated woman’s measured calm, her life experience, her vaguely unpleasant “strange spicy” perfume. In Rosemary’s Baby, the protagonist is made to wear a “good luck” locket whose pungent herbal scent is supposed to boost her health during pregnancy, but in fact only makes her feel worse. Similarly, Nina creates havoc in Emma’s life only so she can solve it, gaining influence by making herself an essential confidante, bringing herself in just close enough to feel the soft spot pulsing beneath her hand.

Why do we remember, what do we forget? Do women survive childbirth? Are monsters born or made? Can we ever truly see ourselves as others see us? (Would we ever truly want to?) Her doesn’t offer up any easy answers, but it will pull you in from the start, keep you up late, and have you dreaming up all those long-forgotten faces from the past.

Recommended for fans of Gillian Flynn, Jenn Ashworth, and Disney’s Maleficent — and for anyone else forever scarred by watching early-90s maternity creepfest The Hand That Rocks The Cradle at a way too formative age.

chimamanda ngozi adiche, ‘americanah’ (2013)

★★★★☆

chimaWhen the unstable political landscape of 90s Nigeria causes endless strikes across its university network, nineteen-year-old Ifemelu accepts a generous communications scholarship in Philadelphia, on the understanding boyfriend Obinze will soon follow. But when the embassy denies his application, a series of traumatising events causes their long-distance relationship to disintegrate, and he decides instead to try his luck as an illegal immigrant in Blunkett’s Britain. Americanah opens with Ifemelu’s decision to return home to Lagos after thirteen years, where Obinze is now a successful realtor with a beautiful wife and child. Told largely through flashbacks, in sections alternating between the two once-lovers, this is a story of how a nation’s identity profoundly affects its citizens’ lives, and how the spirit fights to survive in an uncertain, hostile world.

The most striking aspect of Americanah is how it handles time. As we slowly come to understand what happened in the intervening decade, years are folded in on one another like origami paper, stories skipping ahead before doubling back on themselves, in constant motion. During a bleak scene of rejection or abandonment, brief glimpses are given to better times ahead, the same characters reunited, important connections thus mapped out for the reader. The overall effect is of a self-contained world, a universe with set rules and boundaries, that does make sense, even if we can’t see it yet. Though self-assured, highly principled, and quick to cast judgement upon others, the protagonists are ultimately hypocrites — Obinze who does business with corrupt kingpins, Ifemelu whose relationships are just as transactional as those of the “weaker” women around her — but that they are allowed to be hypocrites, while still being likeable, is refreshing. Adiche has no interest in flat-packing the complex lives of her characters. In many ways a campus novel that naps through its classes, this is still an incredibly literary book, in which characters enjoy reading for reading’s sake — not simply as an intertextual device. Citing Chinua Achebe feels a little easy, but Adiche really does wear Things Fall Apart (1958) on her sleeve, and persistently signposts less prominent writers of colour from across the continents, giving credit (and cutting criticism) where it’s due.

Endless reviews describe Adiche as a “master storyteller”, her prose “able” and “wise”, which I first took to be a vaguely patronising (or worse) form of praise, but in the end it all made perfect sense — she’s just so good. I fell headlong into this book from the very first page, and found myself pining for its vivid world whenever I had to step away. Upon finishing, my immediate instinct was to crack open Half of a Yellow Sun (Adiche, 2006). But the book’s sticking points are hard to miss, and widely cited. Excerpts from Ifemelu’s race blog grow increasingly frequent and unnecessarily long, and her writing style is a little too snarky to fully connect with — particularly amidst the empathy and warmth of Adiche’s wider narrative. From the very opening chapter, easy conversation switches without warning to Platonic dialogue, with characters seeming almost to glaze over as they take up Strong Positions on Big Issues relating variously to racism, politics, inequality, corruption, and hair. That such weighty topics are raised and given due respect in what is ostensibly a love story is impressive, and Adiche’s easy style negates any preachy overtone, but her intentions really are about as subtle as a brick through a window, and it does sadly detract from the overall effect.

Still, there’s a reason everyone’s talking about this book, and with the recent announcement that Hollywood darling du jour Lupita Nyong’o has bought the rights to produce, it’s safe to say it’s set to become ubiquitous. The prospect of a contemporary Afrocentric blockbuster — in which no more than a quarter of the central characters can possibly be white or even American — is truly exciting, and I can’t wait to see how a story so rooted its characters’ internal world is adapted for screen, not to mention its immersion in blogging culture.

Recommended for fans of Jhumpa Lahiri, Siri Hustvedt, Richard Linklater, and Obama. Think a less Dickensian Zadie Smith, latter-day Jeanette Winterston from another motherland, magical realism minus the hijinks. And be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a Beyoncé bodyslam that paints ‘I woke up like this (flawless)‘ in a whole new light.

lana del rey, ‘ultraviolence’ (2014)

★★★★★

The face that launched a thousand thinkpieces is back, and this time it’s less beehives and pouty insolence; more leather jackets, counterculture, and wide-eyed provocation. With a titular nod to the favourite pastime of Alex and his droogs in cult classic A Clockwork Orange, Ultraviolence doesn’t pull any punches as Del Rey’s beautiful dark twisted fantasy — her Russian roulette landscape of obsessive love and gender powerplay — slopes toward its dread conclusion. Though heady album opener ‘Cruel World’ resuscitates the well-worn red dress motif, and the title track’s opening strains are reminiscent of Born to Die‘s lush orchestral sound, this album pitches and sways in a sea of woozy guitars — plaintive vocals weaving through languid drums, reverberating synths, and what sounds suspiciously like a theremin. Co-produced, lead-guitared, and hand-clapped by Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, it’s a meeting of minds made in sad sexy heaven, and results in a record every bit as ambitious and impressively cohesive as its predecessors.

Lead single ‘West Coast’ manages to channel both 90s alternative rock and William Orbit at the height of his millennial powers. If ‘Pure Shores’ was “futuristic dream pop”, Del Rey carries its legacy over into the realm of nightmare. ‘Down on the west coast, they got their icons / their silver starlets, their Queens of Saigons’ she intones, in a low-key ode to the glamorous world that lures her away from the man she loves. But mere months after the pop icon explosion of expanded music video cum high concept short film Tropico — where Lana in her many guises mingles with Marilyn, Elvis, Jesus, and John Wayne — Ultraviolence exhibits a distinct lack of hero worship. No hey Lolita heys, no James Deans for sure, not even a whiff of brand name soda. With the notable exception of the late great Lou Reed, due to work with Del Rey on the very day of his death, we’re drawn away from the Walk of Fame into an anonymous, almost offensively anachronistic mishmash world of cult leaders, jazz singers, hipsters and beat poets. Having all but jumped the shark with her Kimye-baiting turn on last year’s Great Gatsby soundtrack, the reigning queen of All American nostalgia has found an all new reference set.

Ultraviolence is slower to take hold than Del Rey’s debut, and it’s easy to miss the stirring strings and swaggering self-shout-outs of that bold opening track, its steely statement of intent. But what initially risks sounding like an album of b-sides jumps quickly into focus. David Lynch has been a touchstone since the clear blue skies and blood red roses of Born to Die‘s artwork, fully realised in Paradise‘s heavy-lidded cover of ‘Blue Velvet’, and his spectre is raised again now in the smoky piano bar strains of ambivalent adultery anthem ‘Sad Girl’ (‘He’s got the fire, and he walks with it’) and ‘Shades of Cool”s untouchable neo-noir glamour. Stand-out track ‘Pretty When You Cry’ channels Cat Power at her most fractured and Radiohead at their most bump in the night. ‘I’m stronger than all my men / except for you’ keens Del Rey, snaring the troubling truth at the heart of her music, admitting the kryptonite effect of her own desires, before swirling into a disconcerting peal of otherworldly moans and feedback. ‘Old Money’ is undoubtedly the weakest link, treading far too familiar ‘Young and Beautiful’ territory on a bed of blue hydrangeas and cloying cinema-friendly orchestration, but the album closes (just in case you missed the memo) on a poignant rendition of Nina Simone’s ‘The Other Woman’, complete with an arpeggio so elegant it would make Jeff Buckley blush.

lanaspin.gifWhat’s perhaps most interesting about Ultraviolence is the sheer masculinity of its influences, delivered in Del Rey’s trademark ultrafeminine style. Though her live shows could easily be mistaken for AGMs of The Sisterhood (flower crown dresscode mandatory), on Paradise Lana cast herself as a lonely angel in the land of ‘Gods & Monsters’; found her redemption in the company of men in ‘Ride’. This drift from the Bechdel-approved, female-centric storytelling of ‘Carmen’ and ‘This Is What Makes Us Girls’ continues, and we find her now reporting the female experience from the front lines of an almost dystopianly male world. The album’s contentious title track not only appropriates the brutal misogyny of Clockwork, but quotes the Crystals’ controversial 1962 track ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)’. ‘Jim raised me up / he hurt me but it felt like true love / Jim taught me that / loving him was never enough.’ Haggling over Del Rey’s feminist credentials is a pointless (and boring) pursuit, but it’s telling that female characters singing about why they stay in abusive relationships — when we live in a culture that ultimately sanctions violence against women — is where we want to draw the line.

If Born to Die was about temptations of fame and the flesh, and Paradise about tasting the apple, Ultraviolence is the story of life after the Fall, of what happens when desire and fantasy are prioritised above all else, when happiness is forgotten in the wanton pursuit of pleasure. Simultaneously earnest and ironic, it’s as difficult to pin down as the artist herself — but constancy and lucidity have never been Lana’s primary concerns. ‘Yeah my boyfriend’s pretty cool, but he’s not at cool as me’ she reminds us in ‘Brooklyn Baby’, an impish celebration of neo-bohemian living that’s proved divisive amongst even her most ardent superfans. ‘You never liked the way I said it / If you don’t get it then forget it’ she shrugs. If you just don’t get the LDR hype, this album is unlikely to change your mind. If however, two years later, the churchbell chime-in of ‘Video Games’ still gives you goosebumps and/or the sudden urge to go lie down in a darkened room, it will only reassure you that your wagon is hitched to a bonafide starlet — one who doesn’t look to be fading away any time soon.

jhumpa lahiri, ‘the namesake’ (2003)

★★★☆☆

lahiriFollowing a fatal crash on a train to Jamshedpur in 1961, Ashoke Ganguli attributes his survival to Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, whose compelling tale of impoverished Russian government clerk Akaky Akakievich (‘The Overcoat’, 1842) kept him awake and out of the sleeping bunk that was ultimately, inescapably, crushed. So, seven years later, Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel begins in a small Massachusetts apartment with the birth of Gogol Ganguli, tracing his story from that fateful night, through the small village in Calcutta where his parents met, by way of their immigration to the west, and on his own journey into adulthood as a second generation American. The story is told in Lahiri’s trademark style — passive, tender, and brilliantly subtle, tugging gently on loose threads of meaning that are ultimately never tied — from the perspective of four central characters, spanning four decades and three continents. It is at heart a story of identity, destiny, personal mythology, and the meaning of names; the power of naming. Though the pained protagonist will later change his name by legal deed, to the narrator — to the reader, to his family, to himself — he will always be Gogol.

I didn’t actively dislike Gogol, but a reviewer on goodreads writes that she wished the story had centred instead upon his eventual wife Moushumi, and this was my first thought upon closing the book. Not only does she “do something“, she is a truly compelling character: a bright beautiful academically-driven young woman in the true post-Roth American tradition. Where every other character in the book seems acted upon by the culture that surrounds them, Moushumi uses travel and movement to reinvent herself, to live out different lives, to shape her own reality. I loved reading her backstory, and seeing things from her perspective for those few brief paragraphs. That she is the only character beside Gogol and his parents to take control of the narrative is testament to her strength, but in fact each of Gogol’s girlfriends enlivened the story, and I certainly felt far more interest and empathy for their fates than I ever did for his. While we are reminded often of the great leaps of faith taken by their parents — the arranged marriages, the immigration, the terrifying leaving-behind of it all — the characters of the younger generation (of immigrant descent or otherwise) seem to persistently circle back to their adolescence. Returning to the family home, returning to past loves, never quite growing out of student life; prisoners to the comforts, jealousies, insecurities, and desires of the past.

“What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?” (Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, 1937) Food is often a central motif in narratives of cultural displacement, and in Lahiri’s opening scene a heavily pregnant Ashima tries to recreate a popular Indian snack using Rice Crispies, peanuts, and a host of veg and spices. “Tasting from a cupped palm, she frowns; as usual, there’s something missing.” The metaphor carries — this persistent murky sense that something isn’t quite right is what differentiates The Namesake from so many diaspora/second gen narratives. The reader is privy to several scenes of ingrained cultural prejudice and microaggression — we see Gogol being teased through his first years in school, hear his internal alarm bells at the smirks and slights his parents receive out in public, feel his under-the-skin irritation at dinner parties when pushed to admit where he’s “really from”. But there’s a deftness of touch here, a refusal to lay everything out in easy terms, to detail the existential horror of cultural alienation, as Xiaolu Guo does, or slip into thinly-veiled straight-up cultural criticism à la Adiche (both of which I loved, to be clear). Instead we are immersed in the physical and emotional experience of Lahiri’s characters, understanding how and what they feel — if not always exactly why.

In one of the novel’s closing scenes we wander with Gogol through the streets of New York City, noting the World Trade Center “looming” and “sparkling” in the distance with an interest that is architectural, brief, and benign. Though published in 2003, this is a very pointedly pre-9/11 narrative, steadfastly refusing to collude with the reader’s dread knowledge of what is to come, its action tapering to a close in the final weeks of 2000. Despite Lahiri’s complex rendering of the immigrant experience, her characters pass through airport terminals and jettison across the world with all the ease of pieces gliding across a chessboard, with a lack of complication — or narrative exposition — hard to imagine today. Strapped into their seats with headphones on and Bloody Mary in hand, they are blithely unaware of experiencing a fleeting golden moment in history, when travel and communication technologies created true global citizens. To my knowledge Lahiri is yet to engage with the events of 9/11 in her fiction, but I’ll be interested to see how the meaning of that day has infiltrated her almost utopically globalist worldview when I come around to reading her more recent work.

The Namesake is a thoroughly enjoyable read, but in the end it fails to pack the punch of Lahiri’s short stories. Pick up The Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and skip ahead to ‘Sexy’ to get a real sense of just how good she can be. If you enjoy Lahiri’s passive tone and emotional complexity, give Steve Martin’s Shopgirl (2000) a try. If you’re looking for a true intercultural intergenerational contemporary classic, do not pass go, head straight for White Teeth (Zadie Smith, 2000).