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Author:
• Saturday, January 30th, 2016

Joanne Michèle Sylvie Harris was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire in 1964 to an English father and a French mother. Both her parents taught modern languages and literature at a local grammar school. Harris was educated at Wakefield Girls’ High School, Barnsley Sixth Form College and St Catharine’s College, Cambridge where she studied modern and medieval languages.

After training as a teacher at Sheffield University, she taught modern languages at Leeds Grammar School, an independent boy’s school in Yorkshire, for fifteen years and at Sheffield University. She was awarded honorary doctorates in literature from the University of Huddersfield and the University of Sheffield and was also made an Honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.

Joanne Harris is an acclaimed writer. She has written several books among which some were dedicated to gastronomical pleasure. She has received numerous awards and her books have been translated into several languages and published in many countries. In 2013 she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List and she is a patron of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation.

Joanne Harris lives with her husband in a little wood in Yorkshire and dedicates her time to writing books as a means of living. In an interview she says that she has always written since she was a child.

Harris’s French relatives live in Brittany. Her grandfather had a beach house on an island off southern Brittany which looked just like the island of Le Devin in Coastliners. Coastliners was published in 2002 in English and in 2005 in French.

The narrator of Coastliners is called Madeleine but everybody calls her by her nickname, Mado. She is a Parisian painter specialised in seascapes due to her attachment to her native island. She is always trying to recapture the images that remain in her mind from the past and to appease her longing to return home to les Salants. Les Salants is a small island off Noirmoutier near Le Devin. It’s an imaginery island close to the coast of France. Mado goes back in order to care for her aging father, GrosJean Prasteau, a former boat-builder and a silent, depressed and withdrawn man who is haunted and psychologically blocked by an old guilt concerning the accidental death of his beloved brother. Mado returns with the will to reconcile with him after so many years of estrangement. She wants to start a new relationship with her father in the hope of gaining his approval and love.

After ten years spent with her now deceased mother in Paris, Mado, now a young woman, discovers upon her return home that nothing has changed on the island since her absence. The two rival clans, the Houssins and the Salannais still hold ancestral hatreds against each other. She takes upon herself to improve the life of the poverty-striken Salanais by saving les Salants from the destructive sea, caused in part by natural causes and in part by the Houssins.

The Houssins live at the other end of the island. The powerfully rich local entrepreneur Houssin, Claude Brismand, owns the ferry that transports tourists from the mainland to Le Devin. He erected the costly breakwater in order to shelter la Houssinière from sea erosion and to control the lucrative tourism through the island’s only beach, thus allowing the tides to flood Les Salants and leave the fatalist as well as superstitious Salanais to fight for their own survival.

Mado sets a secret plan to help the fishing community in her village with the help of the young attractive, enigmatic Irishman, Richard Flynn, by building a rudimentary barrier with sand bags and old tyres to redirect the tides away from Les Salants. Mado has in mind to make Les Salants a touristic, prosperous holiday resort and fight the ruthless manipulator and machiavellian Claude Brismand, who has a hidden, evil plan to dispossess the land and properties of the poor Salanais and own Les Salants himself.

Richard Flynn is an outsider who has been accepted by the Salanais as one of them and who everybody in the village calls, Rouget, because of his red hair. He presents himself to Mado “with an ironic flourish” as a “philosopher, builder, sculptor, welder, fisherman, handyman, weatherman…”

The story of Coastliners underlines how small villages are forgotten by bigger communities and have to fight for themselves and unite in times of adversity. To achieve their goal, they were missing the help of an energetic tenacious leader, like the persuasive Mado. She comes to their rescue and never loses hope despite hardships to carry her people through tough times. She endeavours to pull the villagers out of their lethargy, passiveness, in-grained superstitious and ancient rituals toward their patron, St. Marine-de-la-mer. One of their beliefs is that if you kiss the feet of St. Marine-de-la-mer and spit three times, something that you have lost will come back to you. Their maxim is:“everything returns”.

The story also portrays the rivalries, jealousy and betrayal between Mado and her older married sister, Adrienne, as well as the great deceit when Mado by chance discovers the secret relationship between Flynn and Brismand who were plotting against her father’s interests on one side and her sister and her husband Marin Brismand, the nephew and heir of the same Claude Brismand, on the other side. In her novel the author emphasizes how the yearning for material possessions prevails over family ties, love and values.

Coastliners is the battle of good versus evil. The story is slow paced but the plot picks up and mysteries and twists are revealed at the end of the novel. Despite the numerous characters and their complicated relationships, the story is uncomplicated. The author describes charmingly and with her flowing prose an accurate and lively portrayal of the islanders who are still living as in the old days, oblivious to the passage of time, modern life and what’s happening in the world. Reading Coastliners is like embarking on a voyage out of time.

Author:
• Saturday, March 03rd, 2007

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London in 1967 but moved to Rhode Island USA with her parents at the age of two. She received a B.A. in English literature from Barnard College, an M.A. in English from Boston University as well as an M.A. in Creative Writing, in comparative studies in literature and arts, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance studies. She taught creative writing at Boston university and the Rhode Island school of design.

Jhumpa Lahiri has written only two books to date: her short stories “Interpreter of Maladies” published in 1999. It became a best-seller in no time, was translated into 29 languages, and won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the first time to have been won by an Indian. She also won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New Yorker Debut of the Year award, and a nomination for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Her second book “The Namesake”, published in 2003, is her first novel. The New Yorker has published two of her stories: “Nobody’s Business” in 2001 and “Hell and Heaven” in 2004. The New Yorker named her one of the 20 best writers under the age of 40.

Jhumpa Lahiri lives and works in Brooklyn with her Guatemalan American husband, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, who works as a deputy editor for the Time Latin America and their son Octavio. She was married in 2001. Her parents live three hours away from her home. Her father is a librarian and her mother a professor of Bengali. She also has a younger sister.

Her real name is Nilanjana Svdeshna. Jhumpa is her nick-name. “The Namesake” is being filmed and is to be released in 2006.

“The Namesake”, J.L.’s first novel, deals with more than one theme: the difficulty for immigrants to adapt to a new life far away from home, the clash between different cultures and the problem of integration. Ashoke and Ashima, newly married in Calcutta, move to Cambridge Massachusetts for Ashoke to continue his studies and obtain an MIT engineering degree. Ashoke is more supple and open-minded vis-à-vis the American way of life than his wife, Ashima who will never be able to accept this new culture thrust on her. During the 32 years from 1968 to 2000 we come across the struggle of the Bengali second generation immigrants and their search for identity.

Jhumpa Lahiri says in one of her interviews: “The question of identity is always a difficult one, but especially so for those who grow up in two worlds simultaneously, as is the case for their children. The older I get, the more I am aware that I have somehow inherited a sense of exile from my parents, even though in many ways I am so much more American than they are. In fact, it is still very hard to think of myself as an American. (This is of course complicated by the fact that I was born in London.) I think that for immigrants, the challenges of exile, the loneliness, the constant sense of alienantion, the knowledge of, and longing for a lost world, are more explicit and distressing than for their children. On the other hand, the problem for the children of immigrants – those with strong ties to their country of origin – is that they feel neither one thing nor the other. This has been my experience in any case.”

When asked which country was her motherland, JL replied: “None”, “No country is my motherland. I always find myself in exile in whichever country I travel to. That’s why I was always tempted to write something about those living their lives in exile”, she said.

Reading this would explain her deeply moving way of describing her characters and their various conflicts, especially the main character, Gogol, who had been given a nick-name – a Bengali tradition – which is neither Indian, nor American, and not even a first name but a Russian surname. He was named after the Russian writer, Nicolaï Gogol, his father’s favourite author and also rescuer from the train accident in India. People saw the father in the train’s wreckage thanks to the father holding Gogol’s collection of short stories. Gogol hated his nickname, which became his official name, and felt relieved to go and have it changed to Nikhil.

Jhumpa Lahiri says: “The original spark for the book was the fact that a friend of my cousin’s in India had the pet name, Gogol. I wanted to write about the pet name, good name distinction for a long time, and I know I needed the space of a novel to explore the idea.” The idea has been very well explored in depth in addition to the immigration/assimilation problem.

The description of the characters is quite detailed and charming, like Ashima’s examining her future husband’s shoes in the lobby of her parents’ house before walking into the sitting room.

Gogol grows up to be an intelligent, well educated man, but feels helplessly lost. He has a good, promising job and yet can’t find his way in life. He was born and grew up in America from Benghali parents with an odd name that he didn’t appreciate and which became his real name. He had a bad experience with an American young lady and a hurtful one from his Benghali wife, which led to divorce.

He is the main character in the book and the very touching one. Through Gogol we live the trials and tribulations of the Ganguli family. The style of the narration is elegant and so is the prose. All the events are described in great detail. Even the description of the different Indian dishes are mouth watering. It’s all very endearing and very life like.

Full circle is reached when Nikhil discovers among the books his mother piled in a box to give away to the library, the long forgotten volume that his father once gave him as a birthday present and which he never even looked at. Suddenly Nikhil felt the urge to discover “The Collection of Short Stories” by Nikolaï Gogol. Like his grandfather and his father before him, Nikhil has embarked on a new discovery.

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