Whereabouts

Jhumpa Lahiri

Whereabouts
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Whereabouts

Jhumpa Lahiri

The woman moves through the city, her city, on her own.


She moves along its bright pavements; she passes over its bridges, through its shops and pools and bars. She slows her pace to watch a couple fighting, to take in the sight of an old woman in a waiting room; pauses to drink her coffee in a shaded square.

Sometimes her steps take her to her grieving mother, sealed off in her own solitude. Sometimes they take her to the station, where the trains can spirit her away for a short while.

But in the arc of a year, as one season gives way to the next, transformation awaits. One day at the sea, both overwhelmed and replenished by the sun’s vital heat, her perspective will change forever.

A rare work of fiction, Whereabouts - first written in Italian and then translated by the author herself - brims with the impulse to cross barriers. By grafting herself onto a new literary language, Lahiri has pushed herself to a new level of artistic achievement. A dazzling evocation of a city, its captures a woman standing on one of life’s thresholds, reflecting on what has been lost and facing, with equal hope and rage, what may lie ahead.

Review

Whereabouts is Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel written in Italian – a remarkable feat considering she learnt the language later in life. It’s incredible then to discover that after the Italian publication Lahiri also translated the work back into English herself. It’s debatable whether having this context prior to reading is necessary, although it’s hard not to notice, and be fascinated by, how this Italian filter has changed her writing. Lahiri said in a recent interview with the New Yorker that she never would have written this novel in English, and it is indeed starkly different to her earlier works of fiction.

Told in sparse, short chapters, the novel’s unnamed narrator is a single, middle-aged woman, who is a writer and somewhat reluctant teacher at a university. The city she lives in is never named, but she knows it and its people intimately. Much of the novel is made up of her small, intimate moments: a conversation overheard at her local swimming pool, a run-in with a stranger at a friend’s dinner party, a chance encounter with a former lover. These events are often understated, and mostly unconnected, but almost always punctuated by beautiful moments of clarity and small revelations. Reading Whereabouts, I couldn’t help thinking of Rachel Cusk’s recent Outline series. Although different on many levels they share this quality where their narrator’s inner-being is reflected back at them through conversations and observations of the world around them.

It should be said that readers hoping for an armchair tour will be disappointed. Only the tiniest clues are given that we are in Italy, and maybe Rome, but otherwise Lahiri’s lack of use of the classic Italian tropes are stark and pointed in their omission. This is a novel about its narrator and the people around her.


Joe Rubbo is the operations manager at Readings.

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