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Translated from the Italian by the author

The last book I had to review from my September reading pile – I had to start reviewing out of order – back on track now.

I first encountered Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing in 2006 when I read her much anticipated first novel The Namesake, a couple of years later I read her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. I didn’t encounter her again until 2018 and this time as a translator – when I read a novel by Domenico Starnone that she had translated from Italian. I was intrigued. In 2011 Jhumpa Lahiri had moved her family to Italy, where she immersed herself in the language and culture of her adopted country. Incredibly, she began writing in Italian, she has translated two novels by Starnone, as well as writing two of her own books of non-fiction in Italian. Whereabouts – first written in Italian, was Lahiri’s first novel since The Lowland in 2013.

Not a great deal happens in Whereabouts – but that shouldn’t matter – unless you’re looking for a plot driven novel I suppose. The writing is incredible, elegant and minutely observed. Not a word is wasted, an evocation of a city and one woman within it.

“Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect. And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of my knowing it so well.”

The unnamed narrator of the novel is a single woman in her mid-forties, in whose company we move through the city where she lives. She walks along the streets, over bridges through restaurants or shops, she notices the people around her. She stops to have a coffee in a little square, she recognises people she knows, or merely those she has seen on the street before.

The story of this woman is told in a series of short vignettes, chapters are titled for the places and situations in which we find her, In the Piazza, On the Street, At the Beautician, In the Sun, At My House etc. There is an incredible sense of belonging to this place, to this unnamed, acutely observed city, but also a sense of isolation.

“The city doesn’t beckon or lend me a shoulder today. Maybe it knows I’m about to leave. The sun’s dull disk defeats me; the dense sky is the same one that will carry me away. The vast and vaporous territory, lacking precise pathways, is all that binds us together now. But it never preserves our tracks. The sky, unlike the sea, never holds on to the people that pass through it. The sky contains nothing of our spirit, it doesn’t care. Always shifting, altering its aspect from one moment to the next, it can’t be defined.”

Cities are wonderful places from where to tell stories, such numbers of people, anonymously brushing shoulders as they venture forth. Yet, within cities there are neighbourhoods, where residents may see the same people at the bus stop or in the coffee shop, strangers become more recognisable and we develop relationships with some of the people around us. Lahiri portrays that relationship we can have with parts of the cities where we live beautifully, recreating those small everyday moments that happen everywhere.

We share small moments with this woman, getting coffee, talking to the barista she knows, bumping into her ex in a book shop, getting a manicure at the beauticians. There are also some awkward social encounters too, a get together at her home, where the husband of a friend proves himself to be something of a pompous idiot, who consumes all the best cakes. She also attends a baptism of a colleague’s child – but overwhelmed finds an escape at the local beach.

As she moves through the city, we become privy to the woman’s thoughts, as well as her observations, her reminiscences, and her current concerns. Three of the chapters are called In My Head – and are concerned with her inner thoughts, memories of her parents, reflections on her own solitude or reluctance to face the day. She is moving toward a finale of sorts. She has decided to leave this city – to start again elsewhere, leaving is never easy. Through each short chapter we move closer to the time when she will leave the place she seems attached to, but wants to shake off.

“This stationery store has been one of my haunts for years. When I was a young girl I’d go there to get what I needed for school, then for college, and now for teaching. Every purchase, however mundane, makes me happy. Each item validates my life somehow.”

Her mother is an elderly, though oppressive figure, twice a month the woman goes to visit her mother, taking cat’s tongue cookies with her. Her mother can talk of little besides what is wrong with her, while the daughter sits and remembers the woman she was once, when the mother was the age the daughter is now. She remembers the loss of her father, when she was much younger, a loss she very much still carries with her. There is a sense of the woman looking back at the what might have beens, considering the choices she has made throughout her life. She seems happy to be on her own, yet she is very aware of all the people around her who made different choices, seeing those other choices reflected in those other lives.

This was such a beautiful little read – under 200 pages, and full of quotable passages. There is poetic, almost dreamlike quality to the narrative. I am reminded that I want to read much more by Lahiri – especially the book she wrote about her move to Italy and how she began to write in Italian.

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