Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that can sometimes accompany it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties, who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes.

The titles of these individual chapters mostly refer to various physical spaces – ‘On the Street’, ‘In the Piazza’, ‘At the Ticket Counter’, ‘By the Sea’ etc. Nevertheless, the novella is as much a reflection of the narrator’s emotional mindset as it is of her physical location. The Italian title Dove Mi Trove (‘where you find me’ or ‘where I find myself’), can be interpreted in two different but closely connected ways, encompassing the narrator’s situation physically and emotionally. While three chapters carry the title ‘In My Head’, explicitly referencing the narrator’s inner thoughts, this emotional dimension is detectible throughout the book, like a thread or undercurrent running through the text.

As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, avenues left unexplored or chances that were never taken.

Now and then on the streets of my neighbourhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with. He always looks happy to see me. He lives with a friend of mine, and they have two children. Our relationship never goes beyond a longish chat on the sidewalk, a quick coffee together, perhaps a brief stroll in the same direction. He talks excitedly about his projects, he gesticulates, and at times as we’re walking our synchronized bodies, already quite close, discreetly overlap. (p. 5)

We learn about this woman’s childhood, the tensions that existed between her parents, the devastation she felt when her father died relatively suddenly some thirty years earlier – a loss that has left its mark on her life. While the narrator seems relatively comfortable with her solitary existence, knowing that she has chosen freedom and independence over a different type of path, there is a sense that she has disappointed her mother in some way – failing perhaps to live up to the traditional expectations of marriage and motherhood, the more expansive kind of life these experiences would have granted. Consequently, there is an unspoken sense of guilt or resignation in the narrator’s interactions with her mother – a somewhat oppressive elderly women who also lives alone.  

When I was young, even when my father was alive, she kept me close to her side, she never wanted us to be apart, not even briefly. She safeguarded me, she protected me from solitude as if it were a nightmare, or a wasp. We were an unhealthy amalgam until I left to lead a life of my own. Was I the shield between her and her terror, was I the one who kept her from sinking into the abyss? Was it the fear of her fear that’s led me to a life like this? (pp. 29–30).

I love the way Lahiri uses this collection of fragments – there are around forty-five in total – to build up a picture of her narrator’s life, her emotional frame of mind and quotidian existence. As a result, we get the sense of a woman who is aware of her solitude – her aloneness – without feeling weighed down or oppressed by it. Someone who feels resigned to living a solitary life despite the odd regret or tinge of anxiety.

Occasionally, there are social situations she finds stressful – overwhelming, even – inducing a kind of claustrophobia alongside the feeling of exclusion. It’s a state that Lahiri eloquently captures in ‘By the Sea’, which features a celebratory dinner for the baptism of a colleague’s child – a situation that prompts the narrator to seek solace on the adjacent beach, complete with the sea in all its restless magnificence. At other times, however, she takes comfort from her sense of separateness when surrounded by others, sometimes forging unspoken connections with like-minded souls.

In ‘At My Home’, we see how protective she can be about her privacy and how violated she feels if someone invades it. When an old school friend and her new husband come to visit, the narrator finds the latter arrogant – a pompous, self-centred man who looks through the narrator’s bookshelves, eats all the best pastries and bemoans the untidy state of the city. Later, after the family’s departure, the narrator discovers that the couple’s toddler has drawn ‘a thin errant line’ in ballpoint pen on her white leather couch. It’s as if the visitors have left an indelible mark on the narrator’s privacy, a violation that proves impossible to erase or cover up. 

At heart, the protagonist is a people watcher, a consummate observer of others, often wondering about their lives, their current preoccupations and concerns, maybe even their desires. In one fragment, which appears towards the end of the novel, she sees a woman who seems to be very similar to herself – their clothes and body movements are virtually identical, mirroring one another in a ghostly sort of way. Who is this other woman? she wonders. An alter ego, perhaps? A more purposeful or determined version of herself? A figure with ‘a sprightly step’ who ‘clearly knows where she is going’.

Has she always lived here, like me? Or is she just visiting? If so, why? Is she meeting someone? Is it something for work? Is she going to visit her grandmother, a woman in a wheelchair who can no longer come downstairs and sit in the piazza? Is she a woman with millions of things to do? Is she anxious or carefree? Married or alone? Is she going to ring the buzzer of a friend of hers? A lover? (p. 151)

It’s a passage that feels indicative of the slightly elusive nature of this central figure, conveying the air of mystery or privacy that surrounds her existence.

There is a luminosity to these vignettes, a beautiful dreamlike quality that runs through the text. Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world. This is a quietly reflective novella, the sort of book that benefits from close attention and the focus of a single-sitting reading. I’d love to see it on the longlist for the International Booker Prize, which will be announced next March.

Whereabouts is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.

33 thoughts on “Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think I may have caught the same interview, with Elizabeth Day on Radio 4’s Open Book! She asked a terrific question at the end of that piece – about whether the book would be different from the original if Lahiri translated the English version back into Italian. I thought it was a fascinating concept to consider!

      Reply
  1. inthemistandrain

    Thank you, I have it on my tbr and look forward to it. Interesting that you say it benefits from a single sitting read and I’ll wait until I can do that. I, too, heard her on R4 and bought it on the strength of that.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! I think it’s best experienced that way as there’s a cumulative effect with the fragments, a sort of building up of layers as you move through the book.

      Reply
  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    A lovely review, I’ve hesitated on this one, the familiarity of that situation, a woman outside her culture and language, but you do make it sound worthwhile. Lahiri has really pushed herself, such an achievement to write and publish in her ‘learned as an adult’ language.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I agree. It’s a tremendous achievement. I get the sense, from hearing Lahiri speak about the book, that writing in Italian has changed her style somewhat, making it leaner, more pared back than before. It seems to have unleashed a new sense of freedom in her work too. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

      Reply
  3. A Life in Books

    I loved this beautifully expressed novella, too. Absolutely agree about the dreamlike quality of Lahiri’s writing. I’m fascinated by her love affair with the Italian language. You might be interested in an exchange I had with an Italian reader in the comments section of my review who kindly reported back after reading both versions.

    Reply
  4. gertloveday

    I don’t know the work of this writer at all and went to Wikipeda to read about her. What an extraordinary achievement to relocate twice in her lifetime and to become completely fluent in another language. She is on my list for 2022 (that’s where I’m at now! ) And what a lovely edition they’ve given her.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s fascinating to see how she has transitioned to writing in Italian in recent years. I’ve also read a couple her English language books, The Lowland and the short story collection, The Interpretation of Maladies. Both very good, although Whereabouts is probably my favourite so far. It feels somewhat different in style to The Lowland – more precise and pared back than that earlier book. I wonder how much of this is a natural development of her style over time vs a function of her writing in a learned language. It’s an interesting point to consider!

      Reply
  5. Rohan Maitzen

    Lovely post – I especially like your word “luminosity,” which helped me understand why I liked this book so much even though sometimes I chafe at prose that is so insistently sparse. Something shines through the language here.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Rohan! Yes, I sometimes feel the same way. It’s been a while since I read it, but I recall being a bit underwhelmed by Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which felt quite spare and pared back. (I know I’m somewhat out on a limb in that respect.) Another novella of beautifully-written fragments, but overall it didn’t seem to have quite the same coherence or impact as Whereabouts for me…

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review, Jacqui, and this does sound like an excellent novella. Lahiri is someone I’ve been considering reading for a while, and the format with the vignettes sounds like a really effective one. Will look out for it!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, some of these fragmentary, vignette-style novellas can be a bit hit-or-miss, but this one really delivered for me. I’m also hoping it will hold up well over time, unlike some of the others.

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    This sounds beautifully intimate. I had intended to read this for #Witmonth but didn’t manage to fit it in. I like the idea of those fragments building to reveal a full picture of the woman. I really should take my copy of this off the shelf soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Intimate! Yes, that’s spot on, Ali. It feels very personal, almost as if the narrator is having a conversation with the reader. I think you’ll really enjoy it.

      Reply
  8. Julé Cunningham

    What I’ve read of Lahiri’s earlier work was very much enjoyed and this one is somewhere on the TBR too after hearing and reading interviews with her about it. It is fascinating that she embraced writing in a language she learned as an adult, especially as there are so many writers who were troubled by ‘losing’ their language and trying to write in another. Perhaps that experience applies more often to writers who couldn’t return to their home country (Russia) so they felt especially cut off.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! This transition is so interesting, the sheer commitment and dedication it must have taken to learn another language, especially in sufficient depth to produce something as eloquent as this – it’s really quite remarkable. I guess it’s something one has to maintain, to keep thinking and writing in the learned language to prevent it from slipping away. I wonder how much time she spends in Italy vs the US these days, especially given the pandemic etc…

      Reply
  9. Liz Dexter

    This does sound a great read and a lovely meditative piece and I will certainly look out for it. Would it qualify for Women in Translation if she translated it herself?!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s really beautifully written – the sort of narrative that grows over time. And yes, I think it would qualify for Women in Translation, irrespective of the fact that translator and original author are one and the same!

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  11. buriedinprint

    This is one that I admired more than I loved. Although I do understand the appeal. For me, The Lowland was more powerful, but it’s very differently, for content and style. Which makes Lahiri of interest, of course, such versatility. Even pre-Italy.
    That couch! As I remembered it, the guests had actually known she’d drawn on it and chose not to say anything before leaving? Did I completely invent that thoughtlessness for them? LOL

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s really interesting. I loved it but can see how the understated, pared-back style might not suit everybody. Lowland is a great book, and you’re right to highlight the differences. It’s more arresting than Whereabouts, benefiting perhaps from a stronger narrative spine? I really liked it too.

      As for the couch in Whereabouts…yes, I think the young girl’s mother does see the pen mark as she’s packing up her daughter’s stuff at the end of the visit. It reminds me of the time, maybe fifteen years ago, when a close friend and her young family came here for lunch. One of the boys (a bit of a handful at the time) scrawled a noticeable mark on my dining table with a knife, just as we were having our meal. Luckily his parents stepped in and removed the knife to stop him from doing it again, but there was absolutely no apology on their part for their son’s behaviour. In fact, they didn’t even acknowledge that the table had been damaged. I couldn’t believe it! I mean, it’s not a particularly expensive table, but even so, the mark was clearly noticeable at the time and remains visible today, Grr…

      Reply

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