- The Indian American writer’s third novel, her first written in Italian, is composed of 46 chapters, or entries, sequenced over the course of a year, and portrays the lonely existence, in an unnamed place, by an unnamed narrator.
Reviewing “Whereabouts,” Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s third novel, her first written in Italian, feels like an impossible task. One of the reasons is, as Madeleine Thien of The New York Times says, “because the work is pared down to its very essence, and reads like a holding space for work to come.” After publishing the book in Italy in 2018 as “Dove Mi Trovo,” Lahiri translated it into English, choosing the title “Whereabouts.”
This intriguing novel, composed of 46 chapters, or entries, sequenced over the course of a year, portrays the lonely existence, in an unnamed place, by an unnamed narrator. We know she’s a woman and, in a rare concession to biographical detail, a university teacher, in her mid-40s. She has virtually no family, no relationship, just friends, who are also nameless and thinly characterized, with an element of projection: a married neighbor is, to her mind, ready to have an affair with her, while a female friend must, she imagines, be bored of marriage.
“Whereabouts” is a novel in vignettes, each chapter a scene from an everyday occurrence – “In the Bookstore”, “At the Beautician”, etc., – typically experienced alone, although sometimes highlighting the consolation from strangers. As our eyes form these images, sensitive to each reframing, a loose narrative emerges of an Italian woman at a crossroads in her life.
But narrative is not what this book is after. Each entry, most only a few pages long, stands on its own; any could be easily removed without it being missed. Or, as the writer puts it: “As if each session were the first and only time we met. Every session was like the start of a novel abandoned after the first chapter.”
As Lucy Atkins of UK’s The Sunday Times says, the narrator “vibrates with unexpressed emotion, sealed inside her painstaking detachment. Her observations are minute, precise, poetic … Detachment — this notion of the individual passing through — has long been a preoccupation in Lahiri’s works, but here it feels obsessional, woven into the very structure of the novel, with each chapter a self-contained unit, pinned to a location that the ghostlike narrator barely touches.”
The entries sometimes enthrall and sometimes perplex. “This is partly because although written by the same narrator, they seem to emerge from a person not fully realized,” Thien says in her review. “At times she seems Italian and at other times not; rooted yet adrift; untraveled yet well-traveled; parochial yet cosmopolitan.”
Of course, the narrator may rightfully be all these things. Disjunctures characterize the story — between joyful solitude and frightened loneliness, between assertions of contentment and evidence of dissatisfaction — permeate every chapter. For example, “In the Hotel” shows the narrator and a male guest silently synchronizing their daily walks to the lift, a “tacit bond” putting her “obscurely at peace with the world”. These mental dispatches are tantamount in the art of solitude, which, Lahiri rightly observes, “requires a certain discipline.”
This is a very internalized novel, where nothing really occurs. We learn about our unnamed protagonist’s past (her father died when she was a teen) and her present (she can’t sleep well unless she hears the city traffic), and how her then and now intersect.
“Though plotless, the novel remains compelling, like a peephole into a mind sequestered from others,” Tanjil Rashid says in The Guardian. “What lies behind the narrator’s unyielding solitude (“a condition I try to perfect”) remains obscure. Portraying such a character, mysteriously adrift in an urban landscape, ‘Whereabouts’ feels like a movie. There’s something cinematic about the way the novel progresses spatially, each chapter exhibiting a new place, plotted out as a map rather than a timeline,” Rashid says. “The sense of place here departs radically from Lahiri’s writings in English, where the settings (sweltering Calcutta, bookish Boston, a bored housewife’s Rhode Island) retain their distinctive character. ‘Whereabouts’, true to the equivocation about the place buried in its title, could be unfolding anywhere.”
Throughout the book, there’s enough evidence — pizzas and piazzas — for the readers to believe that the narrator lives in Italy. Lahiri references only “the city”, “the neighborhood”, “the country” (anywhere abroad is simply “another country”). Even Italian is known as “our language.”
“Where her English thrived on the particular, Lahiri’s Italian reaches for the universal,” says Rashid. “Astonishingly, “Whereabouts” contains not a single proper noun: nothing to identify individuals or places. Yet with a burst of adjectives, it manages to nail the experience of all of us wading through life: “disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, severed.”
When Lahiri likens a hotel to “a parking garage designed for human beings” – applicable to the business district of any contemporary city worldwide – the image conjures up the universalist vision of her writing.
This is not the kind of book that is particularly concerned with making the reader feel welcomed … a disquieting pattern emerges: in almost every ordinary situation there is something to bring the narrator down … there is little room for lightness or playfulness in the narrator’s accounts … None of the novel’s many brief, subjective meditations leads to a more developed or complex exploration of any broader aspect of the human condition.
The book will strike a chord with anyone who has ever struggled with similar emotional pain. But for all the gloom rising from these pages, there is more than a whiff of the romantic as well.
As James Carmin of The Star Tribune says: “In this beautiful novel, which might not appeal to fans of plot-driven narratives, the reader becomes immersed in the head of its subject. Without artifice, Lahiri’s elegant phrases throughout the book reveal as much about her character as they do about the author’s understanding of her environment and the people who inhabit it.”
And like Carmin, my regret is that I wish “Whereabouts” was longer “so we could linger a bit more with Lahiri’s meditative and lyrical prose.”
The bare-bones style, not to mention the replacement with European characters of the Indians and Indian Americans whose stories readers found so engaging in Lahiri’s previous fiction, won’t please everyone, of course … but I admire her stubborn insistence on the path she has chosen.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters andPhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at OakGrove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.