A decade ago, Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri and her family became expats living in Rome, Italy, and during that time, she immersed herself in the unfamiliar culture, which included writing in Italian. For most people, stepping outside their comfort zone can be difficult, stressful and even painful. Lahiri, on the other hand, makes navigating uncharted territory seem effortless. At least, that’s the impression readers may leave with after reading her latest novel, Whereabouts (Knopf), which is the first Lahiri has written in Italian and then translated into English. She has done a remarkable job in capturing the essence of her adopted tongue and country. The narrative and her turns of phrase feel as authentic and beautiful as if we were reading the original Italian.
In Whereabouts, the reader follows the unnamed narrator as she navigates her banal daily life. Her fears, joys and observations are revealed through short vignettes as she goes to the market, the seaside, on vacation with friends, and as she visits her aging mother and speaks on the phone. Through these snapshots, we discover superficial facts about her life: she lives in Italy and is an independent 45-year-old college professor. She is single, yet married, or emotionally chained, to the city where she has lived her entire life.
ALIENATION, ART, AND A PERSONAL ARC
Like the narrator, the locations and other characters mentioned in the book are unnamed, representing her emotional detachment from them. Names are only assigned to physical objects. The narrator admits she is frugal, but purchasing an agenda each January from her favorite stationery shop or knick-knacks from the man downstairs seem to bring her endless joy. It’s as if consumerism is the only aspect of her life left to her absolute control. Ironically, she mocks her mother’s attachment to a long-lost ring. Yet, it is the narrator’s objects, rather than her experiences, that represent her connection to the people around her and her memories.
While Lahiri’s literary themes of alienation and loss persist throughout Whereabouts, the author experiments with a new genre of storytelling that is more personal than anything she has written before. The chapters are short, yet intimate, as though we are reading the narrator’s journal. She is not shy about exposing her lust for her friend’s husband, her resentment of her parents or her fears about accepting a fellowship abroad. She shares the bliss of eating a sandwich in the piazza on a sunny afternoon, the alienation of being alone at a christening, and her fascination with watching the sunrise from the roof of her apartment. The narrator finds beauty in art, literature and nature, but like most of Lahiri’s characters, she struggles to establish her place in the world.
OUT OF HER COMFORT ZONE
Whereabouts is one big jigsaw puzzle. Each chapter signifies another piece of the narrator, its entirety creating the plot of her life. Unlike most novels where readers begin at Part A and end at Part Z, Whereabouts is circular. The narrator is introduced to the reader on a walk around her beloved neighborhood, and the story cycles through her life by season — winter, spring, summer and fall — and then begins over and over again. She is caught in a repetitive trap of her own making, but when she finally realizes the monotony of her existence, she boldly summons the courage to act. The reader becomes her cheerleader, rooting for her to abandon her self-imposed unhappiness and boredom and to strike out into the world.
I’ve long admired Lahiri’s beautifully lyrical tales of being an outsider (The Namesake, Lowlands, Interpreter of Maladies), and her ability to paint with words to capture the exotic sights, smells and sounds of contemporary Calcutta. In Whereabouts, Lahiri’s magical language is as engaging as ever. Whether she’s describing the locals’ August exodus from her city (“it wastes away like an old woman who was once a stunning beauty before shutting down completely”), the sunrise (“the sphere, so precise at the start, emerges, perfectly round, like an egg yolk that then slips from its shell”), or the difference between the sky and the sea (“The sky, unlike the sea, never holds to the people that pass through it. The sky contains our spirit, it doesn’t care”), Lahiri’s words are stunning, breathtaking poetry.
In Whereabouts, we witness Lahiri breaking free from her literary traditions and tackling a new form of writing. Her risks mirror those of her protagonist, making us wonder whether Lahiri has summoned her own life as inspiration for her narrator’s experiences. In the end, we are glad the unnamed narrator, now our friend and confidant, has passed through our lives. We wish her well, and we are grateful to the author for the introduction.
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