Review: ‘Whereabouts’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

If you sharpen a knife for too long, you ultimately have nothing left. This novel treads closely to that eventuality. Lahiri has removed everything readers look for in a work of fiction, presenting us with a plotless, episodic story told in short chapters out of which most of the unnamed, middle-aged female protagonist’s soul has been honed away.

Nonetheless, each rather mundane moment, hanging as it does between engagement and lack of engagement with the world packs a punch that can be likened, perhaps, to a velvet hammer or the piercing shiv that remains of the original knife. The overall effect is reminiscent of a child standing that the ocean’s edge, eager to plunge into and experience the water and yet content to stand in the littoral zone between land and sea–or, in the character’s case–between stubborn loneliness and interaction with others.

Her father is dead and her relationship with her mother is strained. Yet she meets others, casual friends and/or acquaintances on the street, even lovers sometimes, without undue suffering. In fact, she tentatively seeks others out but stands back from total or long-term commitment.

There is hope here even though everything human seems transitory, like leaves that will soon be blown away by the wind. And yet, she waits and ages.

Four of Five Stars

–Malcolm

Looking forward to Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel ‘Whereabouts’

I’m a huge fan of this author and have read most of her work. But this novel will be a first, in a way, because she wrote it in Italian and did the English translation herself. That’s rather unusual. In part, I want to see if her novel flows differently than The NamesakeThe Lowland, and Interpreter of Maladies. 

I’m impressed with anyone who can learn a new language and gain enough skill and fluency to write a book using it.

Lahiri, who grew up in the States was born in England to Indian parents. So, her native language is Bengali, though she doesn’t speak it well. At the same time, she didn’t feel that much at home in English even though she handled it well enough (!) to win a Pulitzer Prize and be shortlisted for other awards even though she once said that in both Bengali and English she felt like “a linguistic exile.”

Learning Italian wasn’t easy, even after she moved to Italy. Finally, she found people willing to speak nothing but Italian to her and to correct her mistakes as though she were a child. It worked.

From the Publisher

Exuberance and dread, attachment and estrangement: in this novel, Jhumpa Lahiri stretches her themes to the limit. In the arc of one year, an unnamed narrator in an unnamed city, in the middle of her life’s journey, realizes that she’s lost her way. The city she calls home acts as a companion and interlocutor: traversing the streets around her house, and in parks, piazzas, museums, stores, and coffee bars, she feels less alone.

We follow her to the pool she frequents, and to the train station that leads to her mother, who is mired in her own solitude after her husband’s untimely death. Among those who appear on this woman’s path are colleagues with whom she feels ill at ease, casual acquaintances, and “him,” a shadow who both consoles and unsettles her. Until one day at the sea, both overwhelmed and replenished by the sun’s vital heat, her perspective will abruptly change.
 
This is the first novel Lahiri has written in Italian and translated into English. The reader will find the qualities that make Lahiri’s work so beloved: deep intelligence and feeling, richly textured physical and emotional landscapes, and a poetics of dislocation. But Whereabouts, brimming with the impulse to cross barriers, also signals a bold shift of style and sensibility. By grafting herself onto a new literary language, Lahiri has pushed herself to a new level of artistic achievement.

The reviews are good, so I have high hopes for this one.

Malcolm