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Whereabouts: Intelligent, elegant and destined to become book of the year

Book review: Powerfully controlled writing by Jhumpa Lahiri as not one word is wasted

Jhumpa Lahiri. Photograph: Venturelli/WireImage
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
ISBN-13: 978-1526629951
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £14.99

“And I would tell her how much I like to sit outside, pick up a warm pen in my hand, and write down a sentence or two.”

Whereabouts, the fourth novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Booker Prize-shortlisted Jhumpa Lahiri is narrated by an unnamed woman, considering her existence of relative solitude, as she moves through a year in her life in an unnamed Italian city. It is remarkable.

In 2017, Lahiri published a work of autobiographical nonfiction, In Other Words, in which she examines the process she underwent to truly master the Italian language. Her commitment to the cause included relocating her family from America to Rome in the spirit of total immersion. While there the author began to write solely in Italian which ultimately culminated in the publication of, Dove mi trovo, in 2018. It is this novel that Lahiri has now translated herself into English as, Whereabouts, to such great affect.

The novel is constructed of 46 episodes in the narrator’s life as she occupies particular spaces and states of mind: in the piazza, on the balcony, at the stationer’s, on the train, at the supermarket, at the crypt, and so on. Some moments occupy just a single page, others extend to six, but all are self-contained micro-fictions that capture a particular isolated fragment of life. There is no discernible plot in a traditional sense but rather an observation of how the apparent plotless nature of life is in itself the very story of what is to be. The ordinariness of life has been elevated to something extraordinary.


There are, however, motifs that do offer some narrative connective tissue as a through line across the space and time of the work. It is primarily a meditation on solitude and loneliness; the narrator is vividly aware of her isolation but not victimised by it: “Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect. And yet, it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of my knowing it so well.”

Empowering solitude

As we sit with her in a waiting room, at the beautician’s, or on vacation alone, we experience the potential for solitude to empower, and celebrate how sustaining a city itself can be, particularly for a woman so finely tuned into her interior world. In a fast-paced, often anxiety-inducing society that is always moving, the narrator only feels on firm ground, at home, with a pen in her hand: “Disoriented, lost at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, severed, turned around. I spring from these terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.”

The most poignant passages in the novel are found in reflections upon the legacy of childhood, of parental influence, on the adult child. The narrator’s mother haunts the text, a permanent presence that dominates her psyche, whom she considers could be responsible now for her life of aloneness: “She safeguarded me, she protected me from solitude as if it were a nightmare, or a wasp….Was it the fear of her fear that’s led me to a life like this?”

The narrator struggles to reconcile the mother of her childhood with the elderly woman who now desperately seeks her company and wonders why her daughter would choose to have them both be alone. At her therapist’s office she tells us: “Sometimes I’d recount my mother’s fitful rages, the quarrels I’ve never forgotten, terrifying scenes my mother no longer has any memory of. I’d talk about all the ways my mother found fault with me. How severely she’d berate me. The oppressive mother who weighs nothing today, the invasive mother who, in her old age, struggles to take a step.”

Middle-aged now, the daughter still is processing the impact of her parent’s relationship, and the father who avoided conflict, whom she cannot forgive for not protecting her from the arguments: “for having forsaken your role as my defender, all because you felt that you were the victim in that tempestuous household. But that magma never touched you, you’d already built yourself an enclosure that was taller and thicker than the marble that encases you now.” She cannot “escape the shadows our family cast.”

There is an eerie quality to Lahiri’s prose that causes it to linger in the mind long after reading. Deceptively simple, the language is powerfully controlled to render the greatest possible impact on the reader without ever feeling overblown or hyperbolic. From the very first episode, there is an overwhelming confidence in the execution of this work. Not one word is wasted. A total absence of exposition ensures each micro-fiction is surgically edited to its barest, most beautiful bones. And yet, there is a warmth here that encourages great affection for the anonymous narrator. Written with intelligence, elegance, empathy and hypnotic power, Whereabouts is destined to become a book of the year.

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic