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Posted on 11 May 2021 in Fiction |

JHUMPA LAHIRI Whereabouts. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Pulitzer-winner Jhumpa Lahiri explores solitude and life choices in Whereabouts, her first novel since The Lowland in 2013.

This is not a happy book, nor is it a conventional novel in the sense of fiction with a plot, or a storyline. Instead, its brief chapters offer glimpses of the life of a single woman in her late 40s who lives alone in an Italian city, teaches, meets friends and lovers, and observes life around her. Chapter headings show the changing pattern of her life over the course of a year: ‘In Spring’, ‘On the Sidewalk’, ‘At the Trattoria’, ‘By the Sea’, ‘At my Mother’s’, ‘On the Couch’, etc.  She is, as Jhumpa Lahiri has said in an interview with The Guardian, at a crossroads, questioning her life, which is something many of us do at her age.

Solitude: it’s become my trade,’ she reflects.As it requires certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect. And yet it plagues me.’ She suspects that she has chosen it as a rejection of the closeness her mother imposed on her as a child.

When I was young, even when my father was alive, she kept me close to her side, she never wanted us to be apart, not even briefly … We were an unhealthy amalgam until I left to lead a life of my own …. She’d say solitude was a lack and nothing more.

Yet her mother would fly into terrifying rages, berate her and find fault with her. Her childhood relationship with both her parents was, as she remembers it, not good, but she believes they shaped her. To escape her ‘daily routine’, she takes a short vacation in a nearby town. It is ‘a sunlit, peaceful spot’ and she likes the place where she is staying, but even here, the early influence of her parents seems to govern her responses: ‘I think a great deal about my parents, and I ask myself, in this sheltered place, are they still nipping at my heels?’

Often, as she watches and listens to people, she invents stories for them. She watches an elderly couple in the gardens of a villa:

… step down together, gingerly, in a spot where the path is rather uneven, the ground furrowed as if by a stream. They’re clearly well-acquainted, but they don’t strike me as husband and wife. Something tells me they are brother and sister, with a childhood in common, an intimacy that was imposed and indisputable.

Finding a young couple buying suitcases in a shop that had been her favourite stationery shop until it changed hands, she sees that they are clearly in love, ‘attached at the hip, that sublime phase when every stupid thing feels enchanting’, and she ponders their future:

They open and close the brand-new models, lined, unlined, pulling on the zippers, pounding the plastic carapaces. It’s probably the first time they’re going away together. Maybe also their last? Will they come to the conclusion, after spending three days together in a hotel, that they’re not really so in love? Or will the bond only deepen?

In her own life, she has friends and lovers. A friend’s husband, who goes into a lingerie shop with her to help her choose coloured stockings, is a man she ‘might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with’, but ‘we have a chaste, fleeting bond’. She sees them as being like the shadows of the people they stop to observe on a wall as they cross a bridge together, ‘a routine spectacle, impossible to capture’.

‘Never married’, she tells us:

… but like all women, I’ve had my share of married men. Today I think of one I met here, in this bar on the other side of the river where I now happen to be, on my own …. He was unhappily, permanently married. We had a fling. He lived in another city, and he would come down from time to time, for the day, for work. What else is there to say?

Her one long-term relationship with a man she clearly loved and cared for – ‘You’re all I’ve got in this world, he’d say’ – is shattered when a woman phones her and it becomes clear that they were ‘an unwitting threesome’.  When the two women meet and exchange information, ‘Each revelation was devastating. Everything she said. And yet, even as my life shattered in pieces, I felt as if I were finally coming up for air.’

Not all of the book is a bleak as this, and the narrator’s life is, in many ways, like the solitude many of us have experienced during the Covid epidemic, although this book pre-dates it. In effect, it slowly builds a picture of a woman reviewing her past, questioning the way it has shaped her life, and making a decision to change it.

Towards the end of the book she accepts a year-long fellowship in a country across the border.  The symbolism of crossing a border is apparent, as is the symbolism of her vision in a chapter entitled ‘Up Ahead’. The day before she leaves her familiar neighbourhood, at ‘a moment of transition’ when the shops re-open after their long lunch time break, she sees a woman ‘out of the corner of her eye’ who is dressed exactly as she is, and she follows her ‘double’, until she loses her amongst traffic.

Did I imagine her?  No, I’m certain I saw her. A variation of myself with a sprightly step, determined to get somewhere, just up ahead.

Jhumpa Lahiri has received many awards for her work, including the Pulitzer Prize for her short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. This book, which she wrote in Italian (which is not her native language, but one she fell in love with) was first published in Italy under the title Dove mi trove (‘where  I find myself’). She has translated it into English herself and chose the title ‘Whereabouts’, a word that can refer to locations as well as to a life. In the interview with The Guardian, she described the book as a novel of ‘oscillation and unsettledness and shadows’, and she asks ‘what it means to pass through life, to always be moving’ and to be, like her narrator, ‘always on the move in her own world, yet stuck in her world, nervous of what’s on the other side of the border’. Lahiri asks, ‘The border – what does that mean today?’ This is a question that now has both personal and universal relevance.

Jhumpa Lahiri Whereabouts Bloomsbury 2021 PB 176pp $26.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Whereabouts from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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