Jhumpa Lahiri is known for her absorbing, saturated writing, centering on the Indian-American experience. Her previous novels, The Lowland and The Namesake, are epic reads that encompass large spans of time and are thick in characterization. Lahiri’s writing is at once musical and practical, and I mean that as high praise. As a stylist, Lahiri writes with grace, and has a talent for finding profundity in the ordinary.
Lahiri’s latest novel, Whereabouts, is a sublime narrative derived from this skill at finding importance in life’s minutiae. Here, Lahiri breaks her own mold and delivers a slim, poignant novel. Initially written in Italian, Whereabouts is an English translation conducted by the author herself. Lahiri has previously discussed a strong connection to the Italian language, and while Whereabouts exhibits all the talent Lahiri possesses, it reads like an entirely different author wrote the book. The style shift is authentic, though, offering a new level of work from Lahiri.
Whereabouts follows the tradition of the modern literary flaneur. Think of Teju Cole’s Open City, or W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, or Aysegul Savas’ Walking on the Ceiling. Written in sparse, focused chapters that are sometimes only a single paragraph long, these vignettes take us through one year in an unnamed Italian woman’s life. Our narrator is in her mid-forties, unmarried, childless, and lonely. As the narrator traverses her city and its outskirts, we experience her daily rituals, her encounters, and she confides intimate details—her crushes, the sensation of being in her friends’ house when they aren’t home, her past lovers, and her reluctance to visit her mother for how it will reinforce the disappointing life she lives. The effect is a rare, engrossing connection to our narrator.
The book starts with a meditation on a street plaque memorializing a person who was forty-four when he died. The narrator guesses he died on this spot, and his memory remains on the sidewalk among some plants. She considers the sidewalk, its exposed tree roots, the high foot traffic. What she gets to, here, is the uncomfortable juxtaposition of loneliness and permanence. “I keep walking, feeling slightly less alive,” she concludes. The inevitability of death affects the narrator, yes, but it’s her age that keeps coming up again and again throughout the novel. The narrator mourns the life she feels she was meant to have. “Now and then on the streets of my neighborhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with.” This strange thought starts the second vignette, “On the Street,” and it initiates the sort of thought-process our narrator will confide in us through the 150 pages of the novel.
Emotion is found in these small meditations that dot each chapter; we linger on the difficulty of choosing the right shoes in spring, and gluing together a pot that has been broken for years. In these moments, the narrator considers paths not taken, dreams unrealized, and the mature understanding that life is often disappointingly ordinary. She says her heart isn’t in her job as a professor. She has many friends but she seems to feel like a byproduct, or a soundboard, or a touchpoint for a pre-married past life. Still, our narrator maintains hope for the love and happiness that she searches for in life’s cracks and creases. This private hope is the novel’s engine running at low hum.
Perhaps more than anything this novel is a feat of poetry. Observations stun, like, “Outside, there’s a ferocious noise coming from the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind: a perpetual agitation, a thundering boom that devours everything. I wonder why we find it so reassuring.” Lahiri lets her pen go wild, even if the prose is careful and compact. It’s this style that allows her to pull the reader into the narrator’s world.
Other times, the observations seem to be pointing in a foggy direction. “Maybe my father would have liked the bars in my neighborhood, where I can ask for a glass of water filled with bubbles that rise the top, and sip it slowly while I catch my breath or have a quick chat with someone, without paying a cent.” It’s very subtle, but from these kinds of lines, one can deduce the narrator has never gotten over the death of her father, who died when she was a teenager. A life unlived and a life cut short become one in the same in her mind. If we psychoanalyze the narrator, we can perhaps deduce that her loneliness is unconsciously self-constructed. The concept feels a little manufactured. Rather than living life as a victim of circumstance, one would like to see the narrator exhibit some agency, and we do, eventually, but it comes late. At times, I wished for something more to gently pull the book along, and perhaps that would deflect from the narrator’s melancholy.
That said, the loneliness is often broken up with a pleasant detail: “Today one of my lovers keeps calling;” or “my beloved stationary store is at the heart of the city;” or about a dog, “I like the tinkling of the tags around the collar.” It turns out there is love—or lust anyway—and there are things that bring the narrator happiness. The best parts of the novel are when the narrator takes to life’s small joys.
The intimacy that we access in the narrator creates a bond. This publicly restricted person offers the reader unrestricted access to her daily experiences that both appreciate the nuance and also linger on the mundane to add a layer of complexity. While the book could use just a little heat, it still remains a lovely, stirring read. As she makes a small but important decision, it’s surprisingly sad to part with the narrator at the end of the book. This unassuming woman worms her way into your heart, and though the ending is satisfying, it’s still hard to close the cover.
by Jhumpa Lahiri
Published April 27th, 2021