Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri follows an unnamed woman as she moves through an unspecified Italian City alone. It was first published in Italy in 2018 as Dove mi trovo (‘Where I find myself’ or ‘Where I am’). Now, Lahiri has translated her own work into English. The novel was released on the 4th of May 2021 under the title Whereabouts.
It is only a slim volume, but it is broken into 46 short chapters, or moments. Each is set in a different place. Many of the chapters are only a couple of pages long, and in many, if not most, not very much happens. Yet it is captivating, and I found myself unable to put it down. Instead I allowed myself to be transported into Whereabouts in one unbroken sitting.
‘Solitude demands a precise assessment of time, I’ve always understood this’
The development of Lahiri’s writing to this point appears traceable: she started out writing short stories, and her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Whereabouts is her third novel, but each vignette is almost a story in itself, and the unity of the short story form shines through. Her second novel, The Lowland, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013.
However, this is her first novel written in Italian. Lahiri taught herself the language in her 40s after moving with her entire family to Rome from the US in 2011. She was born in London, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and the family moved to the US when she was two. Lahiri wrote about the experience of moving to Italy in her 2016 memoir, In Other Words, written in Italian and rendered in parallel-text English by translator Ann Goldstein.
Lahiri has translated Whereabouts herself. One cannot help but wonder whether the neat perfection of each sentence comes from the way it has been considered first in one language, and then in another. It is sparse, pared back, but yet so rich and mesmerising.
The woman in the novel exists in a sort of sociable solitude. She has many friends and sees them regularly, but also spends a lot of time ruminating alone. Her clearest relationship is with the city itself, and she appears at home in this ‘urban cocoon’.
‘What’s about to happen in these people’s lives?’
The woman’s powers of observation are striking. She is often seen people watching, and comments on these snapshots of other’s lives. Always asking ‘What’s about to happen in these people’s lives?’. Through these glimpses we slowly learn more about the woman herself, but never very much – just enough to tease us into looking for more clues.
Her observations of place are also breathtaking – one of those wonderful but rare cases when it feels like a piece of writing captures something you’ve often thought but have never been able to say. And Lahiri words it far better than I could manage anyway. Such as her desire at the window of a stationary shop, as though it’s a sweet shop, or her strange satisfaction as she cleans her apartment thoroughly for the first ever time.
I feel genuinely sad I have finished reading Whereabouts, as I can never again enjoy it for the first time, but I already know it is a novel I will return to.